The Commercial Appeal, December 5, 1999
Expulsions soar under schools' zero tolerance
By Dirk Johnson
CHICAGO - Just as two 16 year-old girls began quarreling loudly over a magazine in the lunchroom at Curie High School here, an assistant principal stepped in to lay down the law.
No punches had been thrown, no hair was pulled, but the incident became a part of the girls' official record. They were written up" for the infraction, banished to a detention room for the rest of the day and told their parents would be notified. "You have disrupted the lunchroom," Assistant Principal Rochelle Wade told the girls.
Their punishment reflects a widespread crackdown on misconduct in American schools. A zero tolerance approach often directed at behavior that administrators once would have dealt with simply by an immediate rebuke - has been brought on by school shootings, as well as by officials' fear -that bias lawsuits would arise from policies allowing discretion in punishment.
While precise national figures on school punishment are sketchy, experts agree that because of the new approach, the country is witnessing a vast increase in detentions, suspensions and even expulsions, in which the offenders are typically made to attend alternative schools. In Chicago, the expulsion rate has jumped nearly tenfold in the last three years.
Beyond a crackdown on weapons and drugs, the new conduct ethos has profoundly changed views about what used to be deemed usual, if annoying behavior by adolescents. No longer is the playground scrap or the kickball tussle considered a right of passage best settled by a teacher who orders the combatants to their corners, hears out the warring sides and demands apologies and a handshake.
Under the get-tough rules, aggressive behavior such as pushing, shoving or roughhousing is viewed as violence. Specific punishments have been set and students are rarely granted leniency.
Proponents say a tough approach is necessary to create an atmosphere of discipline. "The issues are different today," said General Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "Years ago we didn't have hundreds of knives and guns in school."
Evidence in support of the proponents' argument comes from Baltimore, where a new policy requires that disruptive behavior result in automatic suspension or expulsion, with assignment to an alternative school. Officials say the approach has brought a 31 percent drop in criminal activity in high schools.
Gil Noam, an education professor at Harvard University, has criticized what he calls a "heavily bureaucratized, cookbook approach" to resolving individual cases with blanket policies.
"It's understandable where this is coming from," Noam said, noting that pressure has been mounting on schools to curb violence, especially after recent school shootings "People are very concerned about safety. Parents demand these stricter codes. And it sells well."
But he said the loss of discretion and on-the-spot resolutions can mean "a lost moment to teach children about respect,"and a missed chance to inspire trust of authority figures.
Some 90 percent of schools use ' a zero tolerance policy with set punishments for guns or other weapons, according to a recent Justice Department report. Nearly 90 percent of schools use such policies for alcohol and drugs, and nearly 80 percent have specific punishments for violence, use of tobacco and other infractions.
"We have possibly gotten a little tougher over the last five years," said Gretchen O'Neil, a spokesman for the Boston schools.
In New York City beginning last year, school safety officers were placed under the supervision of the city police department, and infractions on school premises are treated as offenses according to the penal code.
"For the kind of thing like a fistfight on the schools' grounds, I don't understand why it would trigger an arrest," William Thompson Jr., president of the New York Board of Education, said at a recent board meeting. "But there does appear to be an increase in arrests for things like fistfights. That's a concern."
In Chicago, the get-tough policy is largely the creation of school chief Paul Vallas, who has won praise for improving test scores and bringing order to classrooms. Punishments range from detentions to two year expulsions. The discipline code applies to student's 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If a student gets in trouble with the police on Saturday, the school will take action on Monday.
The tougher approach has won praise among many experts on adolescence, who say children must learn that unacceptable behavior means certain punishment.
Charles Ewing a professor of law and psychology at New York State University in Buffalo, urges educators to suspend any student who engages in violence or even threatens it.
"You must look at kids as potential violent actors," Ewing said. "You must develop an absolute zero tolerance policy. Unacceptable acts must be met swiftly and harshly. It's the only hope we have of turning this thing around."
But Noam. of Harvard said schools bent on discipline, should not forget about justice. Not every mistake must necessarily translate to severe punishment for children.
The zero tolerance policies! grew out of the Safe and Drug Free School Act of 1994, which stipulates that schools must: expel any student found with a weapon or lose federal aid.