Putting rock-solid faith in zero tolerance

Like its name, Granite City High School is unyielding when it comes to zero tolerance. This slightly faded town just east of St. Louis provides a case study of how firmly embedded the get-tough policy can become, even as a chorus of second-guessers around the United States question its ultimate effectiveness.

This year the American Bar Association denounced zero tolerance as a "one-size-fits-all solution," but here, in a town that steel built, there are only rock-ribbed believers.

Zero tolerance at GCHS started with a ban on smoking in 1990, which brought the school in line with a law applying to federal buildings. Guns were next, again led by federal law. In the 1990s, an alarming increase in drugs on campus led to a ban that's enforced with drug-sniffing dogs.

A stand against truancy followed. A strike force of three truant officers cites the parents of any student found on the street and returns him or her to school.

The dress code includes zero tolerance for blue and pink hair (among other colors) and excessive body piercings. A dress code for teachers will take effect next fall.

"We had kids coming to school in full clown regalia and dressed up as Count Dracula," says Steve Balen, superintendent of the Granite City School District. "When you have a clown sitting in the front row of your math class, that's an educational distraction."

Zero tolerance applies to hate crimes, too. Voicing certain racial epithets is punishable by expulsion. "If you want to carve a swastika in your head, you won't be doing it in our school," Mr. Balen says.

There is also a program that some call "profiling." If a student displays aberrant behavior, the school might use a list of characteristics the FBI has identified with potential school shooters to form a portrait of the youngster and perhaps take further action. Records of violent or disruptive behavior are kept - starting in kindergarten.

And if a student is caught on campus with a gun, in possession of drugs, or participating in a serious fight, he or she is immediately arrested and removed in handcuffs, in full view of the other students.

"Kids see so much in the movies that blurs the line in their mind between what's real and what's fiction," Balen says. But when they see a student go out in handcuffs, "the line isn't blurred anymore. Kids see that, and they get the message, believe me."

A fear sometimes voiced about strict enforcement of zero tolerance is that it will breed a form of justice as extreme as Britain's 19th-century codes, in which even a stolen loaf of bread could earn a thief a one-way ticket to a penal colony in Australia. But Balen says that far from increasing suspensions and expulsions, zero tolerance has led to a decline in weapons seizures, fighting, and other problems.

"With zero tolerance," Balen says of the district, "we're running about 50 to 75 percent fewer expulsions than before."

Greg Patton, principal of GCHS, says there were nine fights in the 1999-2000 school year, compared with a total of 87 at two nearby high schools. Although a tally hasn't been done for the year just ended, administrators estimate the number of fights in the low teens.

Mr. Patton and Balen seem particularly proud that they have created a fortress mentality without the fortress. Whereas some schools have metal detectors, or at least limit access to a few entrances, GCHS has no metal detectors and more than 30 entrances, most of them accessible.

When a nonprofit group surveyed approximately 90 students (during discussions with no teachers present), all of them said they felt safe at GCHS.

"With zero tolerance, the kids know in advance what the consequences will be," Principal Patton says. "We have fewer problems, I truly believe, because our kids ... know what is and isn't expected of them, and they know it in advance."

Some civil libertarians express concern that zero-tolerance policies can lead to overly harsh punishment, citing cases like the one near Pittsburgh in which a kindergartner was disciplined for wearing a Halloween costume of a firefighter that included a plastic ax.

Granite City school officials don't defend what they regard as the poor application of zero tolerance. To them, it means strict enforcement of rules already on the books, but "once an incident comes to light," Balen says, "it doesn't mean you can't think and can't judge each case on its merits. Common sense has to prevail."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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