How a Keychain Can of Mace Can Keep a Student from College

Imagine you are a young woman in ninth grade. You’re a star member of your school’s Quiz Bowl and volleyball teams, with grades that place you in the top 10 percent of your class. Your mom just started allowing you to be home alone after school until she is off work. It’s just another day. She hands you her house keys and you head off to school.

Near the end of the day, though, you notice a small can of mace attached to your mom’s keychain. Concerned that having it might violate school policy, you alert your teacher, who confiscates it and thanks you for being responsible for turning it in. You continue your day and even participate in a Quiz Bowl competition later on.

That night, you and your mom receive a devastating phone call. A school administrator states that you have been placed on long-term suspension and may be expelled for bringing a weapon to school. You won’t be able to return without school board approval.

Just like that, your entire life has changed. You are no longer a star ninth grader. You are a kid with a disciplinary record. A serious one. One that involves a “weapon.”

A life turned upside down

That’s Nicole. Her life was turned upside down this winter. Though she threatened no one, harmed no one, and acted responsibly when she realized the problem, she now faced the prospect of attending an alternative school for the remainder of the school year. She left behind her friends, classes and teachers who challenged her, the extracurriculars that she loved, and most important, her sense of hope and fairness.

The only good news for Nicole was that, although she lives in Mississippi, her mother works at a New Orleans hotel that provides EdNavigator as a benefit to all employees. I became Nicole’s Navigator.

Nicole’s mom felt the punishment was disproportionate and wanted to challenge it, so I drove from New Orleans to attend Nicole’s first appeal with her family. To strengthen our case, we solicited letters of support from Nicole’s teachers, coaches, and other individuals who could speak to her character. I also reviewed the work that she was being assigned at the alternative center and observed that there was a huge gap in rigor that would leave Nicole behind once she was admitted back to school. Finally, I researched crime in the area and found that there had been two recent rapes within a one-mile radius of the school, making it more understandable that Nicole’s mother had taken steps to defend herself and her daughter.

Confident in our case, we presented the information to the local school board. We hoped they would send Nicole straight back to the classroom immediately, where she belonged.

The next day, we learned the board denied the appeal.

How did this happen?

Nicole is an excellent example of how well-intentioned disciplinary policies can go terribly wrong when they are applied without common sense. Don’t get me wrong. In today’s climate of school violence, safety has to be of utmost concern, but school discipline policies must be fair and considerate of context.

In my many years as an educator, I’d unfortunately seen my share of excessive school discipline. I knew that it sapped my students’ ability to build esteem and see themselves as viable contributors. But the vast majority of my experience was in high-poverty neighborhoods serving primarily Black students. Mississippi showed me that it was no easier for me to explain or reconcile when it affected a suburban White student like Nicole.

Schools with irrational reactions to minor, non-violent infractions teach students like Nicole that doing the right thing only pays off sometimes. Letters of support and mounds of evidence did not matter to the school board as much as following the letter of their policy.

Finding a way forward

In our final appeal with the Superintendent, we made a bit of progress at last. Nicole’s days in the alternative school were reduced and she was allowed to return to her school the following week, with support from a counselor to ease her re-entry plan.

But the damage is done. Nicole had aspirations of attending Mississippi State University or perhaps to reach for an out-of-state dream school, like Yale. Now, on Nicole’s transcript, it reads, “brought weapon on school premises.”

Nicole has three more years to show that this accidental transgression does not define her. We are optimistic that some colleges and universities will see her as a whole person where her own school district saw only a can of mace. But how many will be willing to take the chance?

Our school discipline system is broken. It has become adrift from any moral grounding. We, as adults and decision makers, owe it to our students not only to protect them from harm, but also to be fair in our handling of their mistakes, to counsel them and encourage better decision-making. Most of all, it should be our obligation to teach them that, while justice may be blind, it should never be senseless.

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