Published Online: March 26, 1997

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Zero-Tolerance Laws Getting a Second Look

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An 8-year-old girl in Alexandria, La., was expelled from school last month for bringing her grandfather's pocket watch to her 2nd grade classroom. A small knife was attached to the fob on the gold-plated timepiece, a violation of the district's no-weapons policy.

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A 12-year-old in Woonsocket, R.I., was kicked out of his middle school earlier this month for flashing a toy gun in class.

Widely publicized cases of strict punishments for seemingly minor transgressions such as these have put educators on the defensive in recent months and spurred some states to take a second look at their mandatory-expulsion laws designed to curb school crime.

In Tennessee, for instance, a few legislators are trying to rejigger their "no weapons" law to state explicitly that districts make common-sense enforcement decisions.

"There is action to further clarify the zero-tolerance policy so a kindergartner won't be expelled if his parent puts a knife in with his birthday cake," said Sidney Owen, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee education department.

Violent juvenile crime has jumped 47 percent in the past five years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In the past three years, every state has adopted a "zero tolerance" law that orders districts to expel for at least one year students who bring a gun to school. The measures comply with the 1994 federal gun-free-schools law that requires every state to pass such legislation or forfeit federal education aid.

Exceeding Federal Mandate

In responding to public demands to make schools safer, many states have surpassed the federal mandate, compelling districts to expel students who commit any assault--even without a weapon--or carry illegal drugs to school.

A bill is pending in Alabama that would require students carrying a controlled substance at school to be expelled for one year. Virginia has enacted a similar law.

This tough-on-crime attitude hasn't escaped district officials, who have revamped their discipline codes in recent years to suspend students for carrying everything from nonprescription drugs to plastic knives. ("Suspensions Spur Debate Over Discipline Codes," Oct. 23, 1996.)

It's in this wider net that educators seem to be getting caught.

Often, school officials don't realize that they have discretion in administering penalties, some state lawmakers say. But even principals who understand their options often choose to follow the rules to the letter because they believe strict adherence to policy sends an unambiguous message to students and protects the school from possible legal action.

Lawmakers in a handful of states say reforming state law is necessary to make sure that school officials only boot students for serious infractions and not innocent mistakes.

In addition to the move under way in Tennessee, a proposal to temper zero tolerance is being weighed in Massachusetts, where Rep. Patricia D. Jehlen introduced a bill this session that would mandate due-process hearings for students who are tossed out of school for a year. Under the bill, after students have been expelled for 30 days, they could plead their case before the school board and explain why they should be readmitted. A student expelled for carrying a knife might show that he's been to violence-prevention classes, for example.

Since zero tolerance passed two years ago, the number of school expulsions in Massachusetts has nearly doubled. Many of the students are not malicious and need a second chance, Ms. Jehlen, a Democrat, argued. "This gives kids a way to get back in."

Ms. Jehlen's bill is important to lead the way toward more common-sense solutions to problems on campus, said Susan Cole, the director of the children's-law support project at the Massachusetts Advocacy Center in Boston.

"Expulsion is the first measure of punishment that's applied in many schools, and kids are put on the street for engaging in activities that five years ago might have warranted detention," she said.

Though he agrees that there should be strong due-process provisions for students and that districts could use training in this area, Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Robert V. Antonucci said that he wouldn't want to dilute the message that certain behaviors will not be tolerated. "I am a strong believer that students should know right and wrong and understand the consequences," Mr. Antonucci said last week.

Federal Study in Works

Teachers' unions that have lobbied intensely for strong zero-tolerance laws are concerned that any movement to revamp them would imperil campaigns to keep schools safe.

"Many kids don't feel safe in school, and it's far too early for the pendulum to start shifting back the other way," said John Mitchell, the deputy director for school safety and discipline for the American Federation of Teachers.

There is no solid evidence linking zero-tolerance laws with lower school crime rates nationwide, researchers at the National Center for Education Statistics said. The nces, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, is conducting a study, which will be published next year, that queries schools about the impact of zero-tolerance laws on safety.

Anecdotal evidence abounds, meanwhile. An informal survey of 1,000 teachers that the Texas Federation of Teachers recently concluded suggests that Texas' law may have made a dent in violent crime in schools across the state. From 1993--when the zero-tolerance law was adopted--to 1996, reported student-on-student assaults dropped 10 percent; threats of violence to students fell 6 percent; and assaults on teachers tumbled 35 percent.

"This means that kids are finally getting the message that we mean business and their actions have consequences," Robert Nash, the spokesman for the Texas teachers' union, an affiliate of the AFT, said last week.

Discrimination Fears

Mr. Nash argued that one danger in allowing more discretion in interpreting zero-tolerance laws is the potential for uneven administration that could invite charges of discrimination.

"When you make exceptions or treat each child individually, you create an elitist policy," under which a child from a wealthy family might be unpunished and a troublesome child from a poor family might get the maximum penalty, said Sylvia Pearson, the president of the Rapides Parish, La., school board. That board expelled the 8-year-old student who brought the watch fob to school.

Kathy Christie, a spokeswoman for the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based clearinghouse on state policy, believes that if states and districts continue to expand expulsion policies that cover more than possession of a deadly weapon, the zero-tolerance campaign is liable to backfire.

"The point of zero tolerance was to make it black or white to not come to school with a gun," she said. "But if people keep pushing the envelope, it's going to blow up."

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