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Districts Turn To Expulsions To Keep Order

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Suspension and expulsion are becoming the weapons of choice in the battle to keep schools safe.

States and school districts, prompted by a federal mandate to keep guns out of schools and an increasing public outcry about violence on campuses, are passing strict policies to oust students.

In Texas this month, the Senate approved a bill to banish for one year students who carry guns and knives to school. And in New York City, Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines last month proposed that gun-toting students be suspended for one year and sent to special discipline schools. (See Education Week, 3/15/95.)

Last month, Gov. Gaston Caperton of West Virginia signed legislation that expels students for bringing firearms and other deadly weapons onto school grounds.

But with expulsion measures on the legislative horizon in other states, some education experts urge caution. They say removing students from schools is more costly over the long haul and merely relocates the problem from the classroom to the community.

School-expulsion measures, dubbed "zero tolerance" policies, are expected to move through more than a dozen legislatures this spring as states come into compliance with the gun-free-schools provision of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The law, as reauthorized by Congress last year, directs states to enact laws by October requiring school districts to expel for at least one year students caught with guns or risk having federal aid withheld.

It does not require expulsion for possession of other weapons, such as knives or clubs, though districts may enact broader policies if they choose.

ing the Line

"We need to draw a line in the sand and say, 'Kids are not going to be bringing guns into schools,'" said William Modzeleski, the director of the safe- and drug-free-schools programs at the U.S. Education Department.

But, even without the federal requirement, schools have been jumping on the zero-tolerance bandwagon.

Since the Cincinnati school district adopted a zero-tolerance policy in 1991, at least 25 percent of the nation's largest school districts have approved policies to expel students for carrying weapons to school, according to Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

And while no research exists that shows such policies improve school order and safety, many state and local education leaders are hailing the practice as a bold response to school environments that they say are out of control.

Nearly 18 percent of male high school students reported carrying a weapon on school property in 1993, and more than 9 percent of them said they were threatened or injured with a weapon at school the same year, according to a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last month.

"We are going to create an atmosphere where students can learn, and if a student acts up, we'll move them out of there," said State Sen. Bill Ratliff, the chairman of the Texas Senate's education committee. Mr. Ratliff has introduced a bill that would add arson, aggravated assault, and possession of a knife to the list of offenses for which students must be suspended.

"We don't need to put up with assaults and disruptive behavior," he said.

Teachers' unions generally have applauded tough suspension policies as a way to create a more harmonious learning environment.

"Some of these disruptive kids are sick, and they need help. But a school isn't a psychiatric ward, it's an educational institution," Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in an interview last week.

Mr. Shanker said zero-tolerance policies are crucial to preserving public education. If school violence is not addressed, he said, more parents will enroll their children in private institutions and that will drain resources from public schools.

Positive Alternatives

When students are suspended from public schools, they often go to alternative schools for disruptive youths--modern-day reform schools with strict rules on everything from conduct to clothing. The educational approaches vary from district to district. But the most popular approach is one that combines the flexibility of an alternative school--where students help design the educational program--with the punitive procedures found in correctional institutions.

At John H. Martyn High School, an alternative school in New Orleans, Principal Melissa Caudel searches students daily for weapons and presses assault charges for fighting on campus. There are random weapons-check drills and strict dress codes as well as a rigorous academic program.

Ms. Caudel, who learned tae kwon do, a type of karate, after a student attacked her with an ice pick several years ago, said she believes some children work best in an alternative environment.

Many researchers who have studied alternative schools for disruptive youths say such schools help reduce violence.

But a large number of school districts are unwilling or unable to invest in alternative programs. Lacking the money to start such schools, some districts simply expel student offenders, a practice many observers consider wrong-headed.

"I don't have a lot of patience for professionals who buy into this get-tough, kick-them-out mentality, because they know it doesn't work," said Deborah Prothrow-Stith, a professor of public-health practice at Harvard University and an expert on school violence.

A policy that puts student offenders into the community where they may cause more havoc simply relocates the problem, she said last week. Besides, suspensions are more expensive in the long run, she argued.

"If it's going to cost us $35,000 a year to put a kid in jail, then maybe we want to pay for somebody to tutor that kid instead," said Ms. Prothrow-Stith. Instead of pushing problem students out the door or building separate facilities for them, she said, schools should teach conflict resolution and promote peer-mediation programs to quell school violence before it erupts. (See Education Week, 11/9/94.)

And parents need to be educated about storing guns and knives in homes, she said, because that is where most students get the weapons they bring to school.

Denying an Education?

Beyond these criticisms, Ms. Prothrow-Stith said zero-tolerance policies ultimately will be challenged in court by students who claim they are denied their right to an education.

"Zero tolerance is not going to work well because when districts start expelling a large number of students, there's going to be a political backlash," added Julius Menaker, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies school-discipline policies.

Typical discipline codes are not consistently applied in schools, Mr. Menaker said, which could result in accusations that a district discriminates against particular students.

For example, as part of a larger desegregation lawsuit last year, the Cincinnati district's policy was charged with being unfair to black students because African-Americans were suspended in greater numbers than were other students.

The discipline policy requires the suspension of students for at least 80 days for assault or the possession of drugs, alcohol, or weapons. The federal court hearing the case upheld the suspension policy but ordered the school board to keep records of student suspensions by race and ethnic group.

Fearful of discrimination charges, some schools leaders have been reluctant to enforce their own expulsion rules.

And officials in other districts say they fear that massive suspensions will give their schools a reputation for being riddled with crime.

But, despite some resistance to stronger suspension rules, education leaders predict that zero-tolerance policies are just the beginning of a wave of school anti-violence measures. Other measures are expected to be introduced this year in Congress to add to educators' arsenal against violence.

Referring to the strict suspension policy proposed in New York City, Larry Edwards, an assistant superintendent for high schools there, said: "Suspension is part of a larger national move to empower schools to act. We have just raised the ante [to show that] violence won't be tolerated."

The city's school board is scheduled to vote on the discipline policy next month.

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