When school board members in Milwaukee adopted a get-tough discipline 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 school year, district officials are expelling students at more than three times last year’s rate. Incidents that once landed students in the principal’s office are now landing them on the streets. “The message is zero tolerance,” says Christine 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 November, the 101,000-student district had expelled 79 students, compared with just 25 at the same time last year. At this rate, the district can expect to expel 420 students by the end of the school year, compared with 133 last year. District leaders are hoping, however, that the number of expulsions will dwindle as word spreads that they are serious about kicking students out.
Under the policy enacted in June, expulsion became the presumed punishment for a range of offenses previously treated with some leniency. One big change was adopting a position of zero tolerance toward weapons such as brass knuckles, box cutters, 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 are 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, getting caught with one gram or less of marijuana did not generally put a student on the expulsion track. This year, possession of any illegal drug or alcohol means you’re out. Sexual assault and battery offenses—defined as unprovoked physical or offensive contact—are also grounds for expulsion under the new policy, as is threatening someone.
The new policy has generally met with support from parents and the rest of the community, says Roxanne Starks, president of the citywide council of parent-teacher associations. Most teachers have embraced the change as well, according to Sidney Hatch of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. “If school districts are serious about educating students,” Hatch says, “one of the first things they need to do is make sure students know they are walking into a safe environment.”
One dissenter has been John Gardner, the lone school board member to vote against the policy. Gardner agrees that many of the expelled students should not be in the district’s regular schools, but he believes the system should place violators in alternative-education programs. “Why do we just kick kids out instead of meeting their needs?” Gardner says. “It’s the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life.”
But Sinicki argues that offenders deserve the boot. “Students who behave like that should be considered criminals,” she says.