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Published in Print: November 24, 1999, as Decatur Furor Sparks Wider Policy Debate

Decatur Furor Sparks Wider Policy Debate

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By changing one word in its school code last month, the Tustin, Calif., district softened its zero-tolerance policy on drugs and alcohol. Now, administrators may expel students on the first offense. Before, the word was must.

The shift might seem out of place as officials nationwide scramble to meet demands for stricter student discipline. But amid the strife in Decatur, Ill., over the expulsion of seven students for brawling, more districts may take another look at how they define "zero tolerance."

"Whether you agree or disagree, the protests are bringing this to a head and will present an opportunity for people in education and all government to re-examine the idea," Michael Resnick, the associate executive director of the National School Boards Association, said last week.

Degrees of Punishment

Albuquerque, N.M.: An 8th grader at Roosevelt Middle School began a one-year, automatic explulsion last month for brining a .38-caliber handgun to school, even though the gun's barrel was welded shut.   He is eligible for alternative school.

Danville, Vt.: A high school student who took a loaded shotgun onto his campus was allowed to return to Danville High School this month after a three-day suspension.  The school board decided the student did not intend to use the weapon to threaten or endanger other students.

Rock Hill, S.C.: A junior at Rock Hill High School was expelled earlier this month for one year for bringing a can of pepper spray to school on a key chain.  She is eligible for alternative school, but could return to her home school next semester pending a review.

Mount Healthy, Ohio: Five Mount Healthy High School students were suspended in September for nine days after a scuffle during a football game.  A police officer tried to stop a fight between two students.   After he wrestled one of them to the ground, other students threw gravel and shouted obscenities at the officer.

Puyallup, Wash.: A white student was suspended in September for one week from Puyallup High School after he painted his face black for a senior-class portrait.  School officials cited his safety and the safety of other students.  The district also has a zero-tolerance policy on racial harassment and ordered the student to focus his senior project on causes of racism.

Under such policies, schools have declared they'll administer sure punishment for everything from weapons possession to sexual harassment. One recent federal report found that more than 80 percent of school systems had zero-tolerance policies on weapons, drugs, and alcohol.

But while zero tolerance is a rhetorical battle cry, its interpretation differs radically from community to community. Thus, a student found with a gun is booted from one school, while in the next district over, another gets a short suspension.

In Illinois, where the Decatur protests have cast an intense spotlight on the issue, the number of students expelled climbed from 1,182 in the 1990-91 school year to 2,744 seven years later. State schools Superintendent Glenn W. "Max" McGee is now calling for statewide public forums on expulsions and suspensions.

Some educators and advocacy groups, meanwhile, contend that the disproportionate rates at which minority students receive stiff disciplinary sanctions are evidence of discrimination.

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights showed that black students received an estimated 33 percent of all out-of-school suspensions of more than 10 days in the 1993-94 school year, even though they constituted 17 percent of public school enrollment that year. White students received 50 percent of the suspensions, while making up about 68 percent of enrollment.

Federal Law's Effects

The term "zero tolerance" largely worked its way into school discipline parlance following the 1994 passage of the federal Gun-Free Schools Act.

The term "zero tolerance" largely worked its way into school discipline parlance following the 1994 passage of the federal Gun-Free Schools Act, which requires states to pass laws that force automatic expulsions of students who bring a firearm to school.

Lobbying by school groups such as the NSBA, however, led Congress to add a clause that allows the length of the expulsions to be subject to the review of local school officials. As a result, while every state has a zero-tolerance law for weapons, the outcomes of such infractions vary widely.

Last month, for example, an 8th grader in Albuquerque, N.M., was expelled for a year after bringing a handgun to school, even though the gun's barrel was welded shut. Also last month, in contrast, a teenager in Danville, Vt., received a three-day suspension for bringing a loaded shotgun onto his high school campus.

Still, federal officials say the 1994 law has helped reduce the number of firearms-related infractions in schools. In the 1996-97 school year, 5,724 students who brought firearms to public schools were expelled. The number dropped to 3,930 the following year.

"We are talking about a zero-tolerance policy that was fashioned to meet a serious problem," said William Modzeleski, the director of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program at the Department of Education. "When you have loaded guns in the hands of children, it can lead to very serious problems. Here, the [federal] policy fits the crime."

State and local school officials have also adopted zero-tolerance policies to cover other infractions, including drug and alcohol use as well as racial and sexual harassment.

According to a report released this fall by the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Program of the U.S. Department of Justice, some 90 percent of schools reported having zero-tolerance policies with predetermined consequences or punishments for the possession of firearms or other weapons. Just under 90 percent had such policies for alcohol and drug infractions, while slightly under 80 percent spelled out such penalties for incidents of violence and use of tobacco.

As a result, many states and districts have seen a rise in the number of students expelled and suspended.

In Massachusetts, the number of students removed from their public schools for more than 10 days rose from 983 in 1992-93 to 1,498 in 1996-97, before dropping slightly to 1,334 for the past school year. More Massachusetts students are being removed from school for a longer period of time as well: 121 were removed for 60 to 364 days in 1996-97; 224 were last year.

Indiana reports similar trends. In 1996-97, 92 of the 109 weapons- related expulsions ended up being for less than one year. Only 28 of the 62 expulsions for firearms in 1997- 98 were for less than a year.

"It shows that schools might be toughening up a bit," said Steve Davis, the director of student services for the Indiana education department. "Community standards would be part of it."Local control is just one of the issues that have been raised by the widespread attention the Decatur expulsions have attracted. And that concern reached the presidential race last week.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, weighed in on the Decatur situation in remarks quoted by the Chicago Tribune: "I think that people ought to be allowed to run their school system the way they want to run their school system." But he also noted that he supports alternative education programs for students who are removed from school—services that have also been at issue in the Decatur dispute.

Research Unavailable

Despite the popularity of zero-tolerance policies, little research has been done on their effectiveness in curbing unwanted behavior in schools.

"What zero tolerance does is define the problem, then the numbers go up because you've defined the behavior that's wrong," said June Arnette, the associate director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. But, she added, there are too few data and there has been too little time to assess the effectiveness of such policies.

"When you look at the school problem, it may work," she said. "When you look at community issues, you may be pushing the problem out of the school and onto the street."

David Osher, the managing research scientist for the American Institutes for Research in Washington, who has studied safe and effective schools, acknowledges that zero-tolerance policies can reduce fighting or the number of weapons brought to school. But he believes they fall short of succeeding at helping troubled students.

"My concern is not with ignoring these behaviors," he said, "but good schools prevent the 'dissing' in the hall that leads to infractions so that students never get to the wrong end of the conflict cycle."

Many local officials, however, defend zero-tolerance polices not only as a deterrent to discipline problems, but also as a reflection of community values.

After a surge in drug- related incidents this fall, Richard Zimmerman, the superintendent of the 1,650-student Hartford Union High School District in southeastern Wisconsin, called a community meeting last week to remind parents of the local zero-tolerance policy on drugs and alcohol.

"I don't know that we've learned anything other than [that] our enforcement over time has enjoyed broad community support," said Mr. Zimmerman, who estimated that the local high school has averaged three or four drug infractions a year. "Lots of employers here have zero-tolerance policies at work. If it's not tolerated in the workplace, it's not tolerated in school."

Toughness, Flexibility

Baltimore school officials credit their new, and vigorously promoted, strict behavior policies for a two-thirds drop in arrests and 31 percent fall in school crime this September and October compared with the same time last year. Under the discipline code put in place last spring, disruptive behavior automatically leads to suspension, an assignment to alternative school, or expulsion.

"It doesn't mean we will kick every student out on the first offense, but we have a code of conduct we intend to follow," said Robert Booker, the chief executive officer of the 107,000-student Baltimore district. But he added that the policy, and the publicity it has received, has cut suspensions from 343 in September 1998 to 258 this September, while expulsions fell from 94 to 57 in the same period.

"Students understand what will happen if the rules are broken," he said.

Elsewhere, some policymakers want to give administrators more latitude in making decisions.

Under the new policy in Tustin, Calif., students caught for the first time possessing alcohol, drug paraphernalia, or less than one ounce of marijuana will automatically be suspended for five days. Local administrators now have the option of transferring such students to another school in the district. Such transfers were mandatory under the former policy.

"The board felt that the schools really know the students," said Mark Eliot, a spokesman for the 16,000- student district in Southern California. "Is it fair for the board to make the decisions, when the schools really know who the repeat offenders are?"

It's not surprising that some school boards are looking at ways to be more flexible. In the past few years, school officials have found themselves in embarrassing situations for being compelled under state or district mandates to mete out stiff penalties to a youngster who brought a paring knife to peel an apple, or a girl who took over-the-counter pain medication for menstrual cramps. ("Zero-Tolerance Laws Getting a Second Look," March 26, 1997.)

"The real problem of zero tolerance is that while it is billed as a way to make schools safe, the majority of kids going out under zero tolerance do not make schools safer," said Joan First, the executive director of the Boston-based National Coalition of Advocates for Students, a network of 22 child-advocacy organizations. "There is a madness about what's going on. No one is willing to ask what really happened."

Carl Hansen, a school board member in the Citrus County district 80 miles north of Tampa, Fla., worries that his district's zero- tolerance policies leave some students without educational services.

"It becomes an issue of economic fairness. An affluent kid can be expelled, go to a private school, and come back with little or no time lost," he said. "That option is not available to someone who is poor."

Mr. Hansen has suggested that expelled students, at the very least, be given access to computers and online education. He acknowledged that some students want to get expelled, and thus should not be "rewarded" for misbehaving. "We have talked about this, but we haven't done anything," he said.

Colorado lawmakers, however, have not only talked about what happens to students after they are expelled, but also passed a law two years ago requiring districts to provide alternative education services to students booted from their regular schools if their parents request the help.

The number of Colorado students expelled rose from 1,661 in 1994-95 to 2,085 in 1997-98.

"We became concerned about that issue because we saw how many students who were expelled ended up in corrections—at least 20 percent," said Dave Smith, the director of preventive services for the Colorado education department. "The policymakers were concerned about that number."

The state also created a grant program to help districts pay for alternative services. Just over $3 million is in that pot this year.

"It doesn't make sense to expel students who are already signaling to us that they have a problem," Mr. Smith said.

Vol. 19, Issue 13, Pages 1,12

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