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These are students -- we treat them like criminals

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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001

Ateacher confronts a high school student and asks: Have you been smoking marijuana?

The 17-year-old senior, who has no previous record, tells the truth. Yes.

Game over. After a 10-day suspension, he is transferred to an "alterative school." This new school has "intake" instead of admission. There are strict rules for dress and behavior. There are small classes and constant supervision.

For the rest of his senior year, he is barred from stepping foot on his old school grounds. He can't go to ball games, club meetings or any other school event. He can't go to the prom. He can't attend his own graduation.

This is the price tag of a first or second violation of the drug policy in Pinellas County schools. It also is the result of other serious violations of the code of student conduct that do not merit outright expulsion. Many other school systems have similar rules.

Too harsh? Not enough? Just right?

I talked to the parents of some kids who were recently disciplined for various reasons. They agreed that their child deserved discipline. But they also felt the school system treats them like the parents of hardened criminals.

One is the mother of one of the Boca Ciega High School kids who made the news recently. A group of kids cut class, and some of them took photographs of each other undressed. Then they brought the pictures to school. Stupid. The cops wildly overreacted and charged the kids with felonies. Stupider.

The mother (I'm not using her name to protect her daughter's identity) told me her daughter was not in any of the photos. However, she was in possession of them at school. Now she faces big punishment -- 10-day suspension, and reassignment to the alternative school for the rest of the semester.

(Each night, while she is home on suspension, the telephone rings in their home. It is a recorded message informing the mother that her daughter was absent that day.)

School officials told me they can't discuss individual cases. But in this era of zero tolerance, they are not the least bit apologetic about taking a generally tough stance, especially when it comes to alcohol and other drugs.

"Alcohol and drugs," sighed Nancy Zambito, who is one of three area directors of school operations. "Alcohol is where we lose them. Alcohol is where they die."

Why should a kid already known to have used alcohol be allowed to go to the prom, anyway? What if he was your kid's ride to the event? What if you later found out the school had known his record, but let him attend anyway?

Students get fair warning of the rules -- in fact, they get constant warning -- about these rules. Their parents must read the code of conduct and sign it, too. It is not a secret, nor an ambush.

Zambito told me that many parents are distraught when their child is reassigned. They don't want their child forced into school with "Those People." They never stop to think that to all the other parents, THEIR kid is the one who is Those People.

"I can't tell you the number of parents who have come back to me after a while and said, "This is wonderful,' " she said. They see an improvement.

Being forced to miss graduation is probably the most controversial part of the discipline.

"It IS a big deal," Zambito agreed. "But we tell them, over and over, if you use drugs or alcohol this year, you're not going to walk. It's not a terribly hard requirement. I can't apologize for that."

I cannot argue with her. But something that another school official told me still sticks in my gut.

I asked him: "When are you allowed to screw up?"

His answer was: "Hopefully, you're not going to screw up."

No? Then why did Nature give us so many early years for that very purpose? I am sure YOU had a model childhood, but if I had grown up under zero tolerance, today I might be in prison.

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