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Zero tolerance has limits

Sunday, April 08, 2001

By Kelly Lecker, Toledo Blade

What were once pranks now end in long expulsions from school

In 1980, a pocketknife was something boys carried. In 2001, it's a dangerous weapon.

Back then, crass jokes meant detention or a visit the principal's office. Now they can get a kid arrested.

Panic over school violence in the last decade put a lot of pressure on officials to take care of any bad seeds. They are doing just that -- by pushing problem students out the door.

Schools developed tough discipline codes -- zero tolerance policies -- to protect students from guns and violent behavior. Now, those policies sometimes include punishment for nonviolent offenses like smoking, swearing and tardiness.

Students who defy the rules face suspension or expulsion, long term removal from school. In some districts, expelled students sit out of classes for months because there are no alternatives set up to educate them.

More than 87,000 students were expelled nationwide in the 1997-98 school year, the latest statistics available, according to the Office for Civil Rights, a part of the U.S. Department of Education. There were more than 3.1 million children suspended that year, up from 1.7 million in the 1974-75 school year, and 2.4 million in 1991-92.

It's easy to see the dilemma schools face. Disruptive students take teachers' time and keep others from learning. Parents demand that schools keep their children safe, and administrators are afraid to ignore the slightest problem in light of shootings like the one March 5 in Santee, Calif., where two students died and 13 were injured.

But critics say when students are arrested for making inappropriate comments and are kicked out of school for childhood pranks, things have gone too far.

The American Bar Association voted recently to oppose the zero-tolerance movement until punishments are changed to better fit the crimes and schools consider a student's intent and history. Even some educators are reconsidering zero-tolerance policies to make them more flexible.

Still, school officials and police say no threat in the classroom should be taken lightly.

"You have to keep in mind these are cases of people potentially threatening the safety of other students," says Mike Magnusson, a consultant with the Ohio Department of Education Safe and Drug-Free School program.

A fear of school violence in the 1980s and early 1990s prompted states to embrace zero tolerance.

In 1994, the federal government passed the Gun Free Schools Act, directing the expulsion of students for a year if they take guns and other dangerous weapons to school. It was later amended to give schools some room to reduce the penalty depending on the circumstances.

Violent crime in schools was dropping every year. The chance of a child dying in a school was one in 2 million, says the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based juvenile law center.

But the spate of high-profile shootings shook the country's confidence. School leaders under pressure to ensure the impossible -- that a shooting could never happen in their districts -- developed policies that listed offenses that would result in immediate suspension or expulsion. Most states passed laws requiring the few districts that didn't have these discipline policies to adopt them.

The crackdown in schools has gone well beyond weapons:

*A third-grade pupil from Hudson, Ohio, was suspended for two days when he wrote "You will die an honorable death" as part of an assignment to come up with sayings for fortune cookies.

*Students have been disciplined for having nail clippers and butter knives, shooting paper clips across a cafeteria, and giving cough drops and aspirin to friends.

*Ben Ratner thought he was doing the right thing when he took a knife away from a suicidal friend. His Virginia school district commended him for his noble act, but then suspended him for putting the knife in his locker instead of in the principal's office. He was out of school for 20 weeks.

*A 1999 study in Milwaukee showed that 97 percent of expulsions and suspensions were for non-violent behavior. By 1999, Wisconsin was expelling three times the number of students it did in 1992.

Expulsions are defined in most states as 10 or more days out of school. When a student is out of school for less than 10 days, it's a suspension.

"We've been inundated," says Susan Cole, legal director of the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, a student rights organization. "It became very acceptable to kick kids out of school. Now we're on a slippery slope. We have a lot of kids expelled under the category 'other.' This is not the way you make schools safer."

School officials say it's essential that disruptive children are removed from classrooms for the sake of other students.

"You hear from teachers that one or two students can rob the classroom of valuable learning time," says Celia Lose, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers.

But some administrators blame state laws requiring them to expel students for a number of offenses for the heavy-handed discipline going on in schools.

Many students end up sitting at home or being out on the streets during their suspensions or expulsions. Some students are referred to alternative schools. The fates of others are left up to their parents, who scramble to find other schools which will take them.

Civil rights advocates say schools have gone too far.

"I think it's unfair that everything is taken with deadly seriousness. There is no sense of humor, no sense of proportion, no sense of irony," says Raymond Vasvari, legal director of the ACLU of Ohio. "I don't mean to say these things shouldn't be taken seriously, but we've thrown away one of the most valuable assets we have in curbing school violence, the flexibility and judgment of those who know [the students]."

Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute, says punishing students for offensive speech could alienate them. "Schools have to say, 'Wait a minute. Our kids aren't all killers, and if we treat them like killers they're going to pull away from us.' "

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