Many kids expelled, few options
By BARBARA BEHRENDT
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2001
INVERNESS -- Since the start of the school year, the School Board has voted 42 times to expel students from school.
In nearly every case, the student's offense was possessing or using drugs, alcohol or weapons. In every case, the expulsion vote meant an abrupt halt or at least a significant delay in a young person's education.
School Board member Carol Snyder said she does not think that should happen.
Snyder has asked the board to schedule a workshop on alternatives to expulsion and out-of-school suspensions. That session, which has not yet been scheduled, will likely include discussion of the district's alternative school, the Renaissance Center. Board member Sandra "Sam" Himmel suggested adding that to the workshop.
Snyder said she thinks the district needs to take a hard look at all the programs that relate to student discipline.
"I don't think that putting any kid out on the street is ever a good idea," Snyder said. "Once you put a kid out on the streets, you've lost him. ... We have got to find other ways."
Although she opposes expulsions, she said, she could see a need for it when students face conviction and imprisonment. Snyder also said that she has voted to expel students since she became a board member because "at the present time we don't seem to have a lot of options."
But sometimes she has voted against recommendations to expel.
Snyder cannot talk about the details of individual cases because expulsions are done behind closed doors to protect the privacy of students.
The number of expulsions this year puts it on track to break the record, which was 48 in the 1997-98 school year. For the past two years, there have been 41 expulsions each year. Those numbers are a stark contrast to previous years, such as 1996-97, when 27 students were expelled. The number never topped 20 in a year before that.
The number of expulsions peaked in the 1997-98 school year, during which the School Board approved a "zero tolerance" policy. That rule states that students with controlled substances, including alcohol or weapons, will be expelled.
The policy, which was added to the Student Code of Conduct, takes away the discretion principals and other school disciplinarians once had in deciding whether to expel to punish for those types of offenses.
Snyder said she thinks it's no coincidence that the number of expulsions has increased since zero tolerance was put in place. "I think that the zero tolerance policy definitely needs to be looked at carefully, and determinations should be made about what it should include," she said.
She said that the FBI has reported that school violence is down, despite the isolated mass shootings that have captured headlines across the country.
"If this is true, then I don't know if zero tolerance is the way we should be going," Snyder said. "I think we're being a little paranoid with some justification, but there needs to be a more common-sense approach."
For Snyder, that approach is to find a way to offer a spectrum of services so that students can still be educated, even if they've made a serious mistake.
"We've got to look very closely at alternative schools," she said, adding that the program at the Renaissance Center is not the only kind of alternative. That school serves students who have been disruptive and unsuccessful at their regular middle or high school.
"We can't send children there who have been expelled or suspended," she said. But there are programs in other school districts that provide educational alternatives. Snyder said she hopes the district can examine some of those to see how they might fit in Citrus.
Himmel said she thinks the board is ready for a discussion about the various disciplinary alternatives.
"We need to do something besides just throwing them out of school," she said of the students facing out-of-school suspensions. "We need an option if the student chooses to stay in school. ... For a lot of these kids, we're just giving them a vacation."
Himmel is not sure that zero tolerance is a problem, however. She said disruptive and dangerous students need to be kept outside the regular schools so teachers and students that behave can work uninterrupted.
"I think (zero tolerance) is worth looking at . . . but since we've put it in place, I think it's done what we needed it to do," Himmel said. "These kids, they know what the rules are."
Himmel said she wants to hear more from principals and teachers, but she predicts much of the decision will come down to a discussion of money. New programs are costly, and there has been grumbling in the community over whether disruptive students should get a bigger piece of the district's shrinking budgetary pie.
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