Sidestepping Zero Tolerance

This past April, two students at the Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, Colo., were caught with alcohol during an all-state band competition. After they were caught, six more students came forward and confessed. Under the school's "zero tolerance" policy, all eight were shown the door - expelled.

Their ouster was the fruit of Lewis-Palmer's "no mercy" policy. Get caught with any hint of alcohol and drugs and you're out.

The goal is a good one: to reduce school discipline problems. But while this favored reform of the 1990s has been welcomed by "get tough" proponents, the reality of its increasingly broad application is causing the fur to fly in ever greater quantities.

Just look at how the list of unhappy people at Lewis-Palmer grew in the wake of the expulsions. There were the parents, several of whose children were graduating honors students. Outraged, they appealed to the school board, saying the punishment far outweighed the crime.

The school board refused to budge. But it was overruled by a judge who heard a challenge by five of the families. He reinstated the kids and wiped the record clean, angering the board.

Then there are the three students who didn't appeal, whose parents either made them take their punishment or didn't have the funds to go to court.

And don't forget the 19 kids in the district who have been booted just this year for violating the policy. Joining them are many students who see a huge double standard: If you're an honors student and your parents can go to court, rules are no longer really rules. So why have them?

Drinking underage and at a school event is unacceptable behavior, and the students should have been disciplined. They knew the rules and exercised poor judgment in breaking them. But there are legitimate questions about the merits of inflexible procedures that don't distinguish between offenses or offenders. Clearly there's also a gap between people's perceptions of harsh discipline that sounds good and the results as applied to their children. All that can add up to making a mockery of rules by prompting court challenges and discouraging meaningful punishment.

James King, a senior, says the policy simply passes the buck: "Authority always looks for an easy answer. Along comes zero tolerance and they think this might be it. But it doesn't seem to have solved the problem."

In this case, it has created a raft of new ones - including students who have learned very little about disciplined behavior and a lot about paper tigers.

* Send comments to: Learning Editor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115 or e-mail:

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