This Week: "One Size Fits All" Fits None of Our Kids

Diane Tran is a 17 year old junior at Willis High School in Houston, Texas. She’s an honor student who, in between taking advanced placement and college level classes, works two jobs to help support an older brother (a college student) and as well as a younger sister who lives with relatives. Because her parents have separated and moved away, Tran lives with the family of one of her employers, and readily admits that her hectic schedule often leaves her “too exhausted to wake up in time for school.” There have been many days, she acknowledges, that she has been late to class. And many others that she has missed school entirely. 

As a result of those late mornings and missed days, Tran was recently brought up on truancy charges in a Houston court, where Judge Lanny Moriarty decided to “make an example” of the girl, who, given her work schedule, sometimes goes days on end without sleeping. For this “offense,” Moriarty sentenced Tran to 24 hours in jail, and ordered her to pay a $100 fine. His rationale for taking such a hard line with a struggling student? Here’s how he explained it to Houston’s KHOU-TV: “If you let one (truant student) run loose, what are you gonna’ do with the rest of ‘em? Let them go too?”

Judge Moriarty’s sentiments should certainly give us pause. In his view, it makes no difference that Diane Tran is achieving great things against many, significant challenges; from his perspective, any person, apparently, is only as good as their least offense. The vicissitudes of life seem to mean nothing to Moriarty – in his courtroom, every truant is the same, and the way to solve the problem of children skipping school (for whatever set of inevitably complex reasons) is to punish them with jail time, take money out of their pockets, and permanently tarnish their records.

It is bad enough for the children who come into Moriarty’s court that his view of life should be so painfully absolutist (particularly when he, himself, has had a run in or two with the law). More troubling still is how not alone Moriarty is in his embrace of zero-tolerance, one-size-fits-all penalties for young people in this country. In fact, more and more, it is the approach that school systems across the country are taking to the treatment of our children, often to disastrous effect.

From the brutal handcuffing of disabled students to the race to insanity that is No Child Left Behind, this week’s newsletter offers a number of different perspectives on what happens when we stop treating students as individuals, and start treating them as problems to be solved or scores to be aggregated. And it also offers a look at what happens when concerned citizens push back: on funding cuts that leave teachers and students shortchanged, on policies that raise tuition on public education, and on penalties that cost our children far too much – sometimes even their lives.

There is no doubt in my mind that the protests we are now seeing in places like Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Quebec signal just the beginning of parents, teachers and others standing up to fight for educational policies that treat our children not as undifferentiated cogs in a wheel, but as the invariably unique human beings they are. Diane Tran is but one among millions of kids who have come up against the intransigence of a system that should have their best interests at heart but too often does not; I hope that you will join the movement to make sure that stories like hers become far rarer, indeed.

In solidarity,


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