Why tolerance is fading for zero tolerance in schools
Unaware it had turned cool overnight, Eddie Evans's 12-year-old son bolted out of the house in shirt sleeves. He was on his way to the bus stop when his mother called him back for a jacket.Skip to next paragraph
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In third period the boy discovered that the three-inch pocketknife he had taken to his last Boy Scout meeting was still inside his coat - a definite no-no under the school's zero-tolerance policy. Unsure what to do, he consulted a friend before putting the knife in his locker. The friend turned him in and, after lunch, police arrested him and took him to a juvenile-detention center without contacting his parents, according to senate testimony.
Mr. Evans says the school then expelled his son for 45 days and enrolled him in an alternative school for juvenile offenders. By the end, the First Class Boy Scout, youth leader at church, and winner of an outstanding- student award was contemplating suicide.
"All the teachers knew it was an honest mistake, but none of that mattered because of the school's policy," says Evans two years later.
Evans is one of the many parents who are trying to change the state's Safe Schools Act of 1995. In fact, Texas - one of the nation's toughest-minded states when it comes to crime and discipline - is now at the forefront of a small but growing movement to relax zero-tolerance policies enacted by states in the 1990s.
More than a dozen bills that try to bring a less rigid approach to school discipline have been introduced in the Texas legislature this session, including one that requires school officials to consider a student's intent. The bill is currently moving through the House of Representatives.
"We have seen a number of states toy with the idea of scaling back or trying to make the process of school discipline more rational," says Bob Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. "But Texas is ahead of the curve at this point."
Indiana, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania are also weighing the issue at the legislative level this year, with the introduction of several bills aimed at softening strict school-discipline policies.
"Just talking about it suggests that, if not a pendulum swing, a pendulum creep is in play," says Mr. Schwartz, though he cautions that many states have given their school districts discretion when it comes to discipline, making the issue hard to legislate.
It's particularly difficult to talk about relaxing discipline right now, a week after the school shooting on Minnesota's Red Lake reservation. But even the Red Lake school district Superintendent Stuart Desjarlait has admitted that zero- tolerance policies can't keep kids safe if a student is motivated to kill.
"It goes to show that if something is going to happen, it's going to happen - no matter what you do," he said at a news conference last week. Red Lake High School was equipped with a metal detector, security cameras, and guards.
While zero-tolerance policies took root nationally with the passage of the 1994 Gun-Free School Act, it wasn't until the shootings at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999 that school officials began rapidly expanding the types of infractions that merit expulsion.