Saturday, April 08, 2000

No tolerance for zero tolerance

Expert: It can be harmful

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HIGHLAND HEIGHTS — The expanding web of zero tolerance policies spreading from schools to the juvenile justice system creates a culture in which children are demonized for being children while increasingly being punished as adults, national children's law experts said Friday.

        Zero tolerance — the idea that one punishment fits all crimes and perpetrators — was perpetuated by school shootings, particularly the Columbine shooting nearly a year ago.

        Marsha Levick, legal director at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said such policies lead to mandatory expulsions and sentencings that sound like tales from Ripley's Believe It or Not.

        There is the child expelled for wearing a plastic fireman's ax with his Halloween costume. And the student banned from school for bringing a cardboard replica of a gun.

        In Kenton County, a student awaiting trial for attempted murder attends school on house arrest while another student who had a plastic water gun in school was expelled and sentenced to a stay in a juvenile detention center.

        “The "one sentence fits all' idea does not hold up the sense of fairness children are sup posed to learn,” Ms. Levick said.

        “And every child tried in adult court gets something tacked onto their sentence. A mandatory expulsion from childhood.”

        Ms. Levick and other experts spoke at a children's law conference sponsored by the Northern Kentucky Children's Law Center and held at Northern Kentucky University.

        They said zero tolerance policies teach the wrong lesson, go against the grain of other teachings, and are counterproductive.

        Teri Morris, Fort Thomas Board of Education chairwoman, said her experience on the board and as a parent changed her opinion of zero tolerance.

        “I was once one of those people who was totally for it,” Mrs. Morris said. “But you realize that if a student gets in trouble and doesn't have parents and others in the community to support them, they are sent up the creek.”

        Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in Washington, D.C., said zero tolerance simply doesn't work.

        And in fact, instances of juvenile crime — and homicides — are dropping dramatically, he said.

        The 26 school-related violent deaths in the 1998-99 school year is a 40 percent decline from the previous year.

        With 52 million students in U.S. schools, that equals a two million-to-one chance of being killed in a school, Mr. Schiraldi said.

        “If you're afraid of being killed and you're a kid, you should run into a school because it's one of the safest places in America,” he said.

        Yet media coverage of school shootings and the panic and fear created by zero tolerance policies creates false impressions among citizens, speakers said.

        Recent polls conducted by Gallup for USA Today found that rural parents were most fearful of school violence, even though most serious crime against or by youth occurs in cities.

        In a study to be released Wednesday, Mr. Schiraldi says the Class of 2000 is more likely to believe in God and less likely to use drugs, drink beer or get pregnant than their counterparts in the '70s.

        Yet today's students are getting kicked out of school at nearly double the rate (6.8 percent) of those in 1974 (3.7 percent).

        “Our kids are not school shooters,” Mr. Schiraldi said. “It's as unfair to stereotype 52 million kids as school shooters as it would be to stereotype all adults as Timothy McVeigh.”

        For those who say the drop in juvenile crime is thanks to zero tolerance, Ms. Levick says they are wrong. The decline in juvenile crime started in 1993, two years before zero tolerance policies became prevalent.

        “This is like a pendulum,” Ms. Levick said. “Columbine was like a huge push to put zero tolerance into the juvenile system. Now it's really time for the pendulum to swing back.”


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