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.

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.

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.

"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.

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