Why tolerance is fading for zero tolerance in schools
(Page 2 of 2)
Today, they range from spitting to swearing to skipping school. Principals and teachers say the intent is to head off bad behavior before it escalates into violence. And, in fact, there is evidence that fewer weapons and drugs are being brought on campus since zero-tolerance policies were enacted. Violent crime on campus fell 50 percent between 1992 and 2002, according to a federal report.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"Clearly if you are a classroom teacher dealing with disciplinary problems that come as a result of doing your job, there are times when you need very strong rules and regulations," says Gerald Newberry, executive director of the National Education Association's Health Information Network. "Unfortunately ... many school boards and school administrators misinterpreted the intent of the law and began taking first graders out of class for bringing nail clippers to school."
Further, he says, shrinking budgets have left schools without the means to properly address children's emotional issues.
Defenders of the zero-tolerance approach say that, whatever its flaws, it at least brings a measure of equality to punishment: A child at a posh suburban school in theory faces the same consequences for "bad behavior" as does a student from a more chaotic or disadvantaged environment. But detractors point to a zero-tolerance report released last week by the Advancement Project, a democracy and justice action group in Washington. Among its findings was that minority students are often disproportionately affected by strict disciplinary policies.
That has been particularly troubling to Rep. Dora Olivo (D) of Rosenberg, Texas, who introduced nine disciplinary reform bills this session. "We know so much about what works when it comes to helping children, yet we aren't relying on any of that," she says.
Her bills include requiring school police to receive behavior-management training, parents to be notified immediately after their child is removed from class for a violation, and holding alternative schools accountable for the standardized-test scores of their students.
One former Katy, Texas, high school student says he understands that administrators are trying to create a safe environment, but that they are going too far. A sophomore in 2001, he was late to biology class one day and his teacher sent him to the office for a tardy slip. While he was gone, he says, she asked the class to turn in their spiral notebooks - but no one told him to turn in his notebook when he returned, and his grade dropped from a B to a C.
So he scribbled her name on a piece of paper labeled "permanent list of people who piss me off" - a joke, he says. He then tore up the paper and threw it in the wastebasket. But by day's end, he was in handcuffs. He spent the night in juvenile hall, having been declared a "terrorist threat," and spent eight weeks in an alternative school.
"Zero tolerance is an absolute joke," he says. "I understand that it makes teachers feel better, but it's making school almost like a prison."
Evans, too - the father of the 12-year-old - is concerned. "I don't know what the solution is to stop these wackos from going into schools and killing innocent children and themselves," he wrote in a recent e-mail. "But I do know that abusing innocent forgetful 12-year-old Boy Scouts is not the answer."
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.