18 July 2012 In response to the falling standards of behavior among the Bhutanese youth, the Ministry of Education has joined with the schools in allowing them to  take a harder stance. What this ‘stance’ is seems to be somewhat unclear, with some schools announcing their new policies, others not taking any action yet, and the Ministry saying that all they have done is given more freedom to the schools.

This has not surprisingly been misunderstood in a thousand different ways. The one aspect that everybody seems to have caught upon, is the ‘zero tolerance’ part, where students expelled will not be permitted to join any other school. Bhutan Observer described it as ‘criminalizing’ the students. Other observers feel that it will only result in many, too many in fact, of our youth being caught in a nether world where the only option is to then become a real criminal. Some parents and teachers also feel that the youth deserve a ‘second chance’.

These are all valid points, considering the manner in which the matter of ‘zero tolerance’ has been understood. It is obvious though, that the real issues have been missed. The Minister of Education has also defended the ministry’s position by saying it has been“drawn out of proportion by the media”. A lengthy defense of the policy is also presented by Bhutan Today in another article.

Firstly, given how lax the government has been despite the increasingly criminal behavior of many students, our system is by default a system of ‘multiple chances’. Students receive much more than a second chance. Despite serious offenses, most students caught by the police are released because ‘they are youth’, and they do not even get police records in their name. Without records a first time offender and a ‘hardened’ repeat offender are indistinguishable. This year a student from a Paro high school was caught on our campus by our teachers while trying to peddle drugs and handed over to the police. To our surprise, he was released the next day. The standard of ‘tolerance’ today is obviously too high. (A new “youth-crime history” database has recently been introduced by the Royal Bhutan Police.)

Secondly, the kinds of offenses which deserve zero tolerance needs some clarification. (some clarification & here) Breaking school property  or bullying or even smoking and stealing are the kinds that we have come to tolerate to some degree as normal expressions of youthful rebelliousness. Students expelled for these reasons certainly should not be barred from joining other schools.

But there are other offenses such as stabbings, drug abuse, drug peddling, serious participation in gangs, brawling in the town, muggings etc which are far far more serious and totally unacceptable. If arrested and found guilty in a court, it is very reasonable for a school to expel the perpetrators in the interest of protecting other students. And if these students are found unfit to be in one school, it is illogical to think another school has to admit them. In a nation where education is a right, it is difficult for schools to reject their admission application. And thus was begun the revolving door routine for many very problematic students.

This brings us to the question of whether the zero tolerance policy is ‘criminalizing’ the students. The answer is an obvious no. Students are not ‘being criminalized’. They are being expelled because they have already indulged in criminal behavior. Students with this sort of record need better guidance and supervision than the average school can provide.

Although these students still deserve attention and care from the government, it is a mistake to assume that ‘government’ means ‘school’. There are plenty of other options that are followed in other countries from ‘reform schools’ to military-type schools or even vocational schools. Perhaps these avenues need to be explored or expanded. Expelled students do not have to exist in a ‘nether’ world.

In conclusion, it is necessary to take stronger action for students with unacceptable criminal records. The type of behavior that deserves zero tolerance needs to be better defined. Alternative options for expelled students need to be explored and investments made to expand them.


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