Saturday, May 22, 1999

Has zero tolerance in schools gone too far?


Kids' violence may be causing overreaction

BY CHRISTINE WOLFF
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A public shaken with images of children killing children in school hallways may be applauding a new emphasis on strict punishment of students who even hint at violent behavior.

        But when the phrase “zero tolerance” becomes zero options, it's gone too far, say educators, safety experts and civil-rights advocates.

        The latest example locally: A 7-year-old girl at Fairfield West Elementary School was expelled from school Tuesday for displaying a cap gun on the school bus, causing other children to hide under the seats.

        Too harsh, some say. But, others respond: How can we not be harsh?

        The tendency to go too far is a predictable reaction from school officials trying to cope with a spate of recent shootings in schools, including Thursday's incident in Conyers, Ga., where a 15-year-old wounded six students. Those shootings came one month after a school rampage in Littleton, Colo., in which 15 people died.

        “It's a very reactionary climate now, and it's not always very well thought out,” said Tonya Aultman-Bettridge, a researcher for the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “We have to take everything seriously, but these (zero-tolerance) policies tend to be so inflexible that it tends to be overreaction.

        “It's a hard line to walk. ... You can send a strong message without going overboard.”

        Tristate schools have been spared the deaths but not the scary moments. Students have been found with weapons, and have been caught writing joke hit-lists and making bomb threats.

        Tristate schools are increasing enforcement of existing policies, using zero-tolerance language. That means that incidents deemed disruptive, violent or inappropriate are punished with automatic suspensions and, usually, expulsions.

        But the problem with zero-tolerance policies is, “there's no room for discretion. ... Zero tolerance and expulsion do not necessarily have to go together,” said Ronald Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

        Discretion and some flexibility to address situations case by case is what the mother of the Fairfield second-grader who displayed the cap gun said she wants from school district officials.

        The district had said the child could have returned to school if the family paid for an evaluation by a mental health professional, but the parents say they will not put the child through an exam.

        Safety Center officials are hearing about more districts trying to “build in appeal mechanisms and to encourage administrators to use professional discretion in matters of student behavior,” Mr. Stephens said.

        “Just because you have a zero-tolerance policy doesn't mean you avoid the issue of making appropriate judgment in these incidents,” Mr. Stephens said. “School administrators don't have to check their minds at the schoolhouse gates. ... I'm not advocating bringing cap guns to school, but you need graduated discipline for young children.”

        Since the deaths April 20 at Colorado's Columbine High School, about 45 complaints of excessive punishment of students have come into the Cleveland offices of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio. Hundreds more are hitting ACLU offices nationwide, said Ray Vasvari, Ohio ACLU's legal director.

        Examples from Mr. Vasvari's desk:

        • A third-grader from Hudson, Ohio, was suspended for writing “You will die an honorable death” as a fortune-cookie message for a classroom project. The ACLU is offering to defend the child.

        • A Stow, Ohio, teen-ager was suspended for designing a Web site at home that was critical of the school. The ACLU helped prevent the child from being expelled, Mr. Vasvari said.

        • A teen-age girl near Youngstown, Ohio, was charged in juvenile court as an unruly child after making a shooting motion with her hand at a friend. The ACLU may defend her.

        While criticizing what he sees as “overzealous reaction — reaction not measured but hysterical,” Mr. Vasvari said he is turning away many complaints that are not questionable.

        “Many facts turn out to be facts that need to be punished,” he said. “It may be a bit harsh, but why was she bringing a cap gun to school? It's a bit excessive, but no one's going to defend anyone for bringing a cap gun to school.”

        The phrase “zero tolerance” became popular during the Reagan administration. The federal government told school officials they couldn't get money from the Drug-Free Zone program unless they adopted zero-tolerance policies about drugs on campus, said Peter Blauvelt, president of the National Alliance for Safe Schools in College Park, Maryland. The program later was expanded to make schools “safe and drug free,” adding weapons to the zero-tolerance package, said Mr. Blauvelt, a former school security di rector.

        Drug-Free Zone legislation allowed judges to double a prison sentence for anyone convicted of having drugs within 1,000 feet of a school.

        Zero-tolerance policies need “a layer in there that must say, "Someone will review this,'” Mr. Blauvelt said. “Someone needs to say, "Let's look at the problems this creates.'”

        In Newport, Superintendent Dan Sullivan said a student expelled from bringing weapons to schools could return sooner if the district was satisfied there were no problems at home and a psychological evaluation or counseling was completed — a policy similar to Fairfield's.

        “It does give us an opportunity to review,” Mr. Sullivan said.

        In the Loveland City School District, a review began a year ago of school policies. The words “zero tolerance” appeared several times, and district officials decided to drop them in exchange for a better explanation, said Superintendent Michael Cline.

        “"Zero tolerance' — what does the term mean? It can be interpreted in many ways,” Mr. Cline said. “I do not think it's the best word — too much of a catch-all.”

        Instead of the phrase, “the board has zero tolerance of ...,” Loveland's new policy manuals — which await final school-board approval — say, for example, “The board does not tolerate ....”

        A small change, he said, but it's enough to allow flexibility.

        “Some type of action is taken. But to say there is a consistent punishment for all incidents is not true,” Mr. Cline said. “We're saying there are all kinds of factors that can impact a child's decision.”

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