Commentary: How ‘zero tolerance’ can do more harm in some situations

During my second year of teaching at my current high school, the assistant principal supervising me stepped into my classroom for an unannounced observation.

My students were reading an essay I brought in to introduce a new unit. It was a good text, high-level and high-interest — and most of the kids were annotating diligently. After a few minutes, though, I heard a quiet laugh from a table in the back of the room. Then a louder laugh. Then, conversation. The boys sitting there were carrying on as if they weren’t in an otherwise quiet classroom, as if their assistant principal wasn’t right there behind them, taking notes.

I walked over to the boys’ table and announced in my firmest voice, “Let me remind the class that this is a silent activity.”

It worked; the boys shut up.

Later, I met with my supervisor to discuss the lesson. I thought she would at least congratulate me on my classroom management. She brought up the incident right away: “Did you hear what those boys in the back were saying?”

I said, “No.”

She went on. “They were talking about the essay. In fact, they anticipated some of the questions you asked after the reading, and were starting to debate them. They were really into the text.”

Then, she asked, “What did they do after you told them to be quiet?”

Editorial: We must embrace our patriotic duty to speak out.

I thought back. One boy put his head down for the rest of the period; the other started tapping his pencil loudly on his desk, sighing dramatically whenever I asked the class to do something. Neither student finished the reading or the post-reading assignment. By enforcing a poorly thought-out rule, I had shut down what could have been productive engagement and created a series of new problems.

I’ve thought about that lesson as immigration reform has bubbled back into the news, especially after the twin debacles of Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy for detaining asylum-seekers on the border and House Republicans’ failure to pass recent immigration bills. In teaching, my supervisor reminded me that day, if you want your rules to be followed, those rules have to make sense; they have to further your class objectives; and your students have to understand how following the rules will benefit them. If those conditions go unmet, you can expect your rules to be broken.

Our immigration rules don’t make sense. We’re a wealthy nation with industries that depend on immigrant labor, and there are a handful of nearby countries where conditions sometimes range from depressed to life-threatening. Yet, our rules make it virtually impossible for people from those places — except for the wealthy and well-connected — to legally migrate to our country. We shout “Get in line!” to people who come here without authorization, but we never acknowledge that, for most immigrants from Mexico and Central America, there is no line.

Castillo: Our immigration laws have been splitting families for years.

Many specific steps the Trump administration has taken on immigration seem destined to increase rather than reduce illegality. For example, ending Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, Salvadorans and Hondurans won’t lead hundreds of thousands of immigrants from those countries to give up the families and careers they’ve built in the United States; instead, it will create a new class of “rule-breakers” from groups that had been contributing to our country.

Similarly, the Justice Department’s new restrictions on asylum won’t stop people from fleeing violence; they’ll just increase the probability those people will do so illegally.

In a badly designed system, responsible rule enforcement means discretion and judgment — and sometimes that looks like leniency. But President Trump’s immigration critics don’t want “open borders” any more than teachers want classrooms without rules. Instead, like good teachers, those critics know that “zero tolerance” is a bad response to the problems caused by bad rules.

Strong teaches high school English in Austin.

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