Right response to a bad reaction

Published 9:07 pm Thursday, May 16, 2013

By Dennis Edwards

Zero-tolerance policies usually result from an attempt to prevent something horrible from happening again. Such policies result when people try “to do what we can do,” even when what we do is destined to produce overreactions at some point.

The suspensions of two Driver Elementary School boys recently for doing what healthy, normal boys do got national attention. Their pencil-pointing while making shooting sounds resulted in two-day suspensions and near-universal scorn for the school system.


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The decision-maker was wise in not making their suspension longer. Still, a different kind of wisdom would have been more effective and a lot less troublesome.

If blame has to be cast, then we should follow Coach’s lead. School Board Chairman Mike Debranski had what was a clear, consistent and well-reasoned response to the controversy. He isolated the problem, then addressed the issue itself. He did not attempt to fix blame publicly. Based on experience, though, I’d imagine there were interesting and very direct private conversations.

His message is worth repeating: “It’s an issue we need to deal with more sensitively when it’s younger kids, especially real young kids that don’t know better.”

That’s good common sense. The right response to a wrong reaction. Personalities are removed from consideration, as are crusades and vendettas. At last Thursday’s School Board meeting Chairman Debranski followed up by asking the board’s policy committee to review “zero tolerance” and recommend changes in June.

School officials at the highest levels along with board members admitted “mistakes were made.” You can’t ask for more — or can you?

I admired Mike Debranski when he coached our Suffolk High School football teams in the ’70s. His decision to make Garfield Mizell the starting quarterback over a close relative took more than courage at a complicated and racially sensitive time.

There was an intense and determined look in his eyes then. I saw it again Thursday night, when someone asked about the person who made the decision. All Coach said was “common sense has to be addressed.”

I had an immediate flashback. We saw that look after games where we got it wrong. We saw it again during practices until we got it right.

So I’d be surprised if something like this happens again. The truth is, because of prior incidents, the school system’s credibility can’t take another hit like this, and Coach knows it.

However, there is something more the board can do — reverse the suspensions altogether. Wouldn’t that be the right thing to do? No one wants two innocent young boys to have some sort of official or unofficial record following them through high school.

The process of righting a wrong is already underway. Now it’s time to correct an injustice. It’s clear the board is interested in doing that. Members were careful to remind parents about a suspension appeals process already in place. My hope is the boys’ parents will take advantage of it as soon as possible.

The bottom line in all of this is the gentle realization that one thing shouldn’t change from generation to generation. “Let boys be boys” within reasonable parameters of behavior.

It’s up to the broader community to do all it can to make sure their imaginations aren’t taken away from them.

Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchor, He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at dedwards247@comcast.net.