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'Zero tolerance' leaving zero options

By district policy, a principal has had to suspend two pupils this week. "There's no leeway or room for my personal feelings,'' he says.

By RICHARD DANIELSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


PALM HARBOR -- In 31 years as a middle school teacher, assistant principal and principal, John Leanes has had few weeks as "heart-wrenching" as the one he just went through at Carwise Middle School.

In three days, Leanes said he had to suspend two students, the first on Tuesday for joking that he was bringing a bomb to school. On Thursday, he had to deal with a second boy for putting a butter knife in a backpack and showing it to a student who had been teasing him.

On Friday, Leanes said he can see why school districts have zero tolerance policies when it comes to weapons and threats, but that doesn't make it any easier to administer the consequences when good students make bad decisions.

"I can't tell you what a heart-wrenching week this has been," said Leanes, who has been a middle school administrator for 24 years. "There's no leeway or room for my personal feelings to enter in. . . . I understand it, but it's real hard for me to accept after 31 years."

On Tuesday, officials charged a Carwise seventh-grader with a felony and suspended him for 10 days after he remarked to another student on the bus that he planned to come to school with a bomb and a gun, then quickly added that he was kidding.

On Wednesday, an 11-year-old sixth-grader who had been teased by another student brought a butter knife to school in a leather sheath. Opening his backpack to reveal the knife, he told the girl who had been teasing him, "You better quit messing with me."

School and sheriff's officials heard about the incident Thursday. Acting under their zero tolerance policy regarding weapons, the Sheriff's Office charged the boy with misdemeanor assault, and school administrators suspended him for 10 days and will recommend that he be transferred to an alternative school. The school did not release the boy's name.

In each case, Leanes said, officials believe that the students involved did not plan to harm anyone.

Leanes described the student in the butter knife incident as "exceptionally well-behaved." The school's resource officer, Pinellas sheriff's Deputy Mike Guarneri, said he is a straight-A student.

"I've already had teachers come up to me upset that this had to happen to this kid," Guarneri said. "This kid reads in his spare time. I really felt bad having to do what I did."

Guarneri said the student has been referred to the sheriff's juvenile diversion program. The program gives first-time offenders a chance to write letters of apology, make restitution, do community service and receive counseling. If they complete the program successfully, they don't have a criminal record.

"I have no doubt that he never intended on using it," Guarneri said of the student with the butter knife. "If it was my choice, I would have let the school handle it." But, he said, in such circumstances, his hands are tied.

Leanes said the student with the butter knife wept for nearly two hours in his office, and his parents were similarly stricken. "This has been a difficult week because the parents I've been dealing with have been wonderful people," Leanes said, who have struggled to come to grips with the trouble that their sons have landed in and who have questioned whether they have done anything wrong.

"Gone are the days," he said, "when the principal can sit down and talk to the parents" and perhaps resolve the situation with less drastic measures. "Now, because of our zero tolerance policy . . . there's not a lot of leeway."

In certain circumstances, the school's response is so thoroughly programmed as to be almost mechanical, he said.

"I didn't sleep (this week) because of the processes I have to execute," said Leanes, 52, who is in his eighth year as principal of Carwise.

Zero tolerance policies have arisen from attacks such as this week's fatal shootings at Santana High School in California, where classmates ignored threats made by shooting suspect Andy Williams. In response, school districts have taken an increasingly hard line against students who make threats, however vague, or bring anything to school that could be construed as a weapon.

"Over the last several years, our policies have tightened up," Pinellas County School District spokesman Ron Stone said. "Most school systems have really drawn a line in the sand and said there is no reason to possess a gun on school property." That includes toy guns that look like the real thing.

Leanes said he understands why a zero tolerance policy is necessary, but he feels it should be augmented by more character education and values instruction, especially in middle school.

"I think society is out of control, and (a zero tolerance policy for weapons) probably needs to be in place, but we need to look at how we can get the system back in control," Leanes said.

"I think there's a big part of the picture we're missing," he said. "If we want a kinder, gentler society, we've got to make character education and values as big a part of education as reading, math and science."

In the early 1980s, he recalled, Pinellas middle schools had a program called "adviser/advisee," where teachers and students spent 20 minutes during homeroom every day talking about character issues. The program was killed in the late 1980s after the state pulled funding, he said.

"It really irritates me that we're giving back so much in tax refunds when there are so many needs," Leanes said.

To warn students of the far-reaching consequences of their words and actions, school officials provide students and their parents with copies of the code of student conduct, which spells out the zero tolerance policy.

Leanes also urges students, when they're taunted or confronted by a bully, not to take matters into their own hands but to tell someone in authority. But that takes courage for middle school kids to do, he said. Sometimes, as with the boy with the butter knife, they make wrong decisions.

"Unfortunately, the kid made a bad choice," Leanes said of the boy. "I just wish he had listened to me."

- Staff writer Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or danielson@sptimes.com.

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