When I first met Ruth, she told me, “I was 16 and did a wrong thing and my parents put me out.” I never learned the wrong thing she did, but Ruth was now 27 and had been living in her car with her two children for almost six months. And she expected to be put out.
Is it possible that last year more than 57,000 students were suspended or expelled from school in Maryland? Of those, 8,100 elementary school students, 631 kindergartners and 75 pre-kindergartners were “put out” of school for Disrespect, Insubordination, and Disruption. I’ll bet you know a 4 year old who, on any given day, exhibits behavior that qualifies in any one of those categories. When did “time out” turn into suspension? It is more than troubling to know that the very children who would benefit from the structure of a well-managed classroom are being suspended—put out from the classroom, and sent where: home alone, the arcade, the corner, or to a network of others who have been “put out”?
I am not suggesting that there should be no accountability for behavior, but study after study tells us that zero tolerance does not lead to improved behaviors. There must be alternative paths for discipline, and suspension and expulsion should be the last option.
Expecting accountability from children for their behavior leads me to my audacious idea. In my faith tradition, one of the ways we think of hospitality is suspending judgment in favor of possibility. It is time that we begin to look at every child, suspending judgment and imagining the possibility that rests within him or her. It is time to offer some hospitality to children where we meet them—in school rooms, in our social service systems, in the court room, or on the street. We do not need another generation of children who expect to be put out.
While we are trying to fix systems, you and I have the power to suspend judgment in favor of possibility. We could, without concern that the solution costs too much, is politically unwise, or places blame on someone else, simply start by offering hospitality to all we meet. I’m guessing the readers of this blog are awesome people, who believe in making the world fair and the playing field level. So, I am talking about personal accountability from you and from me and from the men and women who are interacting with children and families in our systems of education, social services and safety. Too soft to be audacious? I don’t think so. Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Tenderness and Kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.” Let’s try a little tenderness.