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Student Expulsions Soar Under Milwaukee's New Discipline Policy

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When Milwaukee school board members adopted a new get-tough disciplinary policy last June, they expected it to double the number of students expelled from school. That has turned to out to be a conservative estimate.

This fall, city schools are expelling students at more than three times the rate last year. Incidents that once landed students in the principal's office are now landing them on the streets.

"The message is zero tolerance," said Christine M. Sinicki, the school board member who sponsored the more stringent policy. "It's really difficult for a child to concentrate on his or her schoolwork when they're in constant fear of the person sitting next to them."

As of late last month, the 101,000-student district had expelled 79 students this school year, compared with just 25 at the same time in 1996. At this rate, the district can expect to expel 420 students by the school year's end, compared with 133 in 1996-97. District leaders hope that projection will not come to pass, however, as word spreads that they are serious about kicking students out.

Tougher Penalties

Under the policy enacted in June, expulsion became the presumed punishment for a range of offenses that were previously treated with greater leniency.

One big change was adopting a position of zero tolerance toward weapons such as brass knuckles, box cutters, knives, and pepper spray. Under the old policy, students generally had to use or threaten to use such items to warrant expulsion; now, mere possession is enough. Students found with guns, meanwhile, are now automatically expelled for a year. Previously, the expulsion's duration was not specified.

The district is also taking a harder line against drugs and alcohol. Last year, for example, getting caught with one gram or less of marijuana did not generally put a student on the expulsion track. This year, any possession of illegal drugs or alcohol means you're out.

A battery offense--unprovoked physical or offensive contact--is also grounds for expulsion under the new policy, as is threatening someone with such an attack. Sexual assault also warrants expulsion.

Costs Keeping Pace

As the number of expulsions has soared, so too have the administrative costs associated with them.

The school board agreed this month to shift $100,000 into the department that conducts district-level disciplinary hearings to cover this year's surging costs.

The new policy has generally met with support from parents and the rest of the community, said Roxanne R. Starks, the president of the citywide council of parent-teacher associations. And most teachers embrace the change, said Sidney K. Hatch, an assistant executive director of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

"We understand that there are always going to be some students who are going to get caught up in this who shouldn't be," Mr. Hatch said. "But if school districts are serious about educating students, one of the first things they need to do is make sure students know they are walking into a safe environment."

One dissenting voice has been that of John S. Gardner, the lone school board member to vote against the new policy. Mr. Gardner said he agreed that many of the expelled students should not be in the district's regular schools. But he said the system should place violators in alternative education programs.

"Why do we just kick kids out instead of meeting their needs?" Mr. Gardner said. "It's the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life."

But Ms. Sinicki argued that offenders deserve their fate. "Students who behave like that should be considered criminals," she said.

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