ST. LOUIS — AT public schools across the country, disruptive and violent students are being shown the schoolhouse door. Educators, parents, and even students are fed up with troublemakers who create chaos in the classroom and turn schools into war zones.
With the help of new laws and greater public resolve, schools are getting serious about weeding out violence-prone students. Instead of being shunted aside, however, these displaced students often end up in alternative schools with smaller classes, closer supervision, and increased security.
''Alternative schools are one of the fastest growing segments of the public education system today,'' says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.
The federal Gun-Free Schools Act mandated last year that states require schools to expel any student who brings in a gun or risk losing federal education funds. Under the ''zero tolerance'' policy, gun-toting students may not attend a regular school for a full calendar year following a violation.
On the heels of the Gun-Free Schools Act, some states are passing laws requiring alternative-education sites for expelled students.
''Many school systems don't want to just throw these kids out on the streets because they know that we're going to pay the price sometime, somewhere,'' Mr. Stephens says.
Several decades ago, alternative schools were common in large, urban school districts. But most were closed after being criticized as ''dumping grounds'' where difficult students could be warehoused and forgotten. ''Many of these schools simply became holding tanks for troubled kids,'' Stephens says.
The new alternative schools are designed to be short-term solutions. The goal is to reform these students and get them back into regular schools. Achieving this requires a new approach.
''You can't take the worst building with the worst staff and the worst kids and make it work,'' says Maurice Risner, principal of Buechel Metropolitan High School, an alternative school in Louisville, Ky. ''Alternative education is expensive if you do it right.''
In the past, public-school parents often complained about dollars spent on disruptive students.
''A decade ago, there was a constant battle about where to invest,'' says Melissa Caudle, principal of John H. Martyn High School, an alternative school in Jefferson, La. ''People would say it costs entirely too much money to operate these schools for a small number of kids that are 'bad.' They would rather put the money into gifted kids.''
But many communities are beginning to see a justification for the cost of successful alternative schools. In a Gallup survey conducted last year, parents cited violence and a lack of discipline as the biggest problems facing public schools.
Cheaper than jail
Although per-pupil expenditures in these programs are nearly double the average cost in regular schools, ''it's not as expensive as juvenile incarceration,'' Stephens says. A year in a juvenile-detention facility costs taxpayers as much as $35,000 to $40,000.
''Although there is no strong, solid research that says these alternative programs work, it's just common sense,'' says Julius Menacker, a professor of education at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
Louisiana and New Jersey recently passed state laws mandating alternative-education programs for expelled students.
''Society is starting to say enough is enough with the troubled youth in our schools,'' Ms. Caudle says. ''But we can't throw up our hands and say we won't educate them anymore.''
To help control costs, some school systems are collaborating to create regional schools for troubled students. Virginia, for example, has 12 regional schools in place. At the Student Learning and Guidance Center in Corpus Christi, Texas, students are accepted from eight small, neighboring school districts that cannot afford separate programs. Other school districts are hiring private organizations to provide alternative settings for expelled students.
While the pressure to remove students who threaten the security of regular classrooms increases, critics warn against going too far.
''We don't want to see a school system develop with a 'regular' setting and a 'second tier' for troubled youth,'' says Richard Gray Jr. of the Boston-based National Coalition of Advocates for Students. ''The criteria for getting back into the system need to be as clear as the criteria for being taken out.''