The Pencil is Mightier Than the Sword?

An 11-year-old student was recently expelled from school after he jabbed another student in the kneecap with a pencil. School administrators initially suspended him for 10 days, but the school board trumped their decision after categorizing the pencil as a weapon.

Since the tragedy of Columbine, the fears of school boards and administrators have been roused across the nation. The safety of all students was catapulted to their number one priority, with an understandable trend toward protection at all costs. “No-tolerance” policies were borne from their understandable paranoia and protective impulses.

But have some of these impulses gone too far?

On the one hand, I strongly believe in school discipline. Too many schools sweep serious bullying incidents under the rug. Some ignore incidents of sexual harassment that would get any adult fired, if not sued. So I support significant consequences for assaulting a peer.

On the other hand, there were apparently no reports of prior violent incidents with this child. He and another peer were jawing back and forth and the kid just poked him on the kneecap. No blood flowed; no ER visit was necessary. It was by all accounts a relatively minor incident. The kid didn’t bring a machete to class; to categorize his pencil as a weapon suggests that all children are wielding potentially dangerous weapons every day in school. If this is the case, school administrators could be sued for allowing deadly weapons in their schools. Of course, that would be insane.

The other variable that caught my interest was the father of the assailant claiming that the child has ADHD and that that was a primary cause of the incident. That’s where I roll my eyes.

OK, the kid had some mainstream mental health professional or pediatrician diagnose him with a baloney disorder. I know that is par for the course for children who struggle with attention and impulsivity. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. What gets me is when parents excuse their child’s behavior with the diagnosis: “The ADHD did it.”

ADHD can’t make a child stab someone with a pencil. Believing that a disorder incapacitates a child’s decision-making skills serves only to excuse that parent from training the child properly. All children can be trained to make far better decisions most of the time. I have seen it time and again—in my own practice and from other like-minded mental health professionals who do not buy into the ADHD excuse.

That is what my book Desperately Seeking Parents is all about: how parents can improve their leadership and training skills, enough to effect change with the most difficult children. Even those who would otherwise be diagnosed with imaginary mental illnesses.

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