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Zero tolerance produces a foolish educational consistency


© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 17, 2001

An 11-year-old boy at Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor got tired recently of a girl who was bullying him at lunch. Too embarrassed to tell his parents or teacher, he decided to retaliate his own way. So he took out a butter knife, of all things, and told her, "You'd better quit messing with me."

The teachers who knew him to be an honor student and a model of good behavior understood that he didn't really mean any harm. So did the principal, a 31-year education veteran, once he reviewed the case. And for that matter, so did the sheriff's deputy who was required to investigate. Said the deputy: "I have no doubt that he never intended on using it. If it was my choice, I would have let the school handle it."

That choice was eliminated, of course, by a slogan called "zero tolerance." In faithfully adhering to that policy, principal John Leanes was forced to suspend the boy for 10 days and reassign him for the rest of the year to a school for troublemakers. Both his parents cried upon being informed, but the father still managed to shake Leanes' hand. Said Leanes at the time: "I didn't sleep (this week) because of the processes I have to execute."

Let us put aside, for a moment, some of the more celebrated cases of zero-tolerance excess -- the National Merit Scholar from Estero High School who was suspended and banned from graduation ceremonies when a kitchen knife was found in her car; the 8-year-old Louisiana girl who was suspended when she brought her grandfather's watch, which had a chain with a one-inch fingernail file on it, to school for show-and-tell; the 14-year-old Ohio girl who was suspended for giving a classmate a Midol tablet. Instead, think about this one educational tale at Carwise Middle School.

Here was an 11-year-old with straight A's and no disciplinary record, a voracious reader, a pleasant boy with caring parents, who did a stupid thing with a butter knife, and all the people who are paid to guide his education sensed there was no cause to punish him too severely. They all felt that he would learn his lesson, and that the school's safety would be preserved, by something less than reassignment. Yet none of their professional opinions mattered. Instead, he was treated the same as a high school gang member with a history of violence who waves a switchblade in the courtyard.

And this is done in the name of "consistency."

On Tuesday, the Pinellas School Board will join the ranks of school districts across the nation that are grappling with the controversy surrounding mandatory discipline policies. The board's workshop is prompted by the case of two Palm Harbor University High seniors who were suspended, reassigned and banned from graduation ceremonies because one of them wrestled witha third student over a bag of pretzels while on a baseball trip in Fort Lauderdale. Though the punishment did not fall directly under the district's zero-tolerance provisions, it had the same characteristic of disproportionality that has led to successful court challenges in other states and caused some districts to change their zero-tolerance policies. At least one Pinellas board member wants to take a critical look at whether zero tolerance makes good educational sense.

"There's got to be room in life, especially for children, where you make a mistake and you can turn it around," says board member Jane Gallucci, a former guidance counselor. "Right now, you make a mistake, and it's one punitive action after another. If you look at all the research, it says that the kids don't really learn from it. All they learn is to be bitter about it."

Gallucci is right, and the reason zero tolerance has been an ill fit for schools is that it is a politically and criminally based model, not an educational one. Most classroom teachers use behavior modeling and progressive discipline to help students learn how to behave appropriately. Being tardy a second time is worse than being tardy the first. A student who has thrown spitballs throughout the semester is more likely to earn a trip to the principal's office than a student who has thrown just one. Guidance counselors also emphasize the developmental stages that children go through as they grow older, including the hormonal surges that often lead to rambunctious behavior in the middle-school years.

Ironically, the school district's personnel policy tends to be more forgiving. That policy notes that, "the school district generally follows a system of progressive discipline in dealing with deficiencies in employee work performance or conduct," and it lists a full page of "mitigating factors" that are to be considered when determining punishment. As a result, for example, a teacher with a good teaching record who is arrested for DUI is treated less severely than a teacher who has been arrested three times for DUI.

With students, though, the past record and the circumstances are irrelevant. That's why Jennifer Coonce, a National Honor Society student at East Lake High, was suspended and reassigned in 1998 for having sipped sangria at a restaurant. She was there as part of a school-sponsored work internship where co-workers were toasting the departure of a woman from the firm, and the sangria came to the attention of school officials only because Coonce's parents notified them out of concern that other interns might be exposed to alcohol. Nancy Zambito, a director of school operations, proclaimed at the time: "The alcohol penalty is the same for everyone, every single student, no matter the circumstances."

In Florida, state law does require mandatory expulsion or reassignment for any student caught with deadly weapons on the school campus and for students who make bomb threats. But Pinellas, like many school districts, takes zero tolerance several steps further. It also has mandatory penalties for students caught with alcohol, drugs and "an item represented to be an illegal drug." And it has lengthened its list of "SERIOUS MISCONDUCT," for which suspensions and expulsions may apply, to include such things as: student demonstrations, "verbal abuse," possession of cell phones, and "other serious misconduct which interferes with the education process." (School Board attorney John Bowen notes that his own daughter, a rising junior at East Lake High, carries a cell phone: "I find it extremely useful to keep in touch with her.")

What has happened is that educators have joined the political frenzy over youth crime, and have ended up, in many cases, treating children who make mistakes as though they were criminals. The American Bar Association, which opposes the zero tolerance policies, also notes a disturbing difference between what the courts and the schools are doing: "Despite the obvious harshness of mandatory sentencing, which reduces judicial discretion, it at least has the benefit of being related to the perceived seriousness of the offense, or tied to the criminal history of the defendant. America's criminal justice system has yet to embrace a single sentence for all crimes."

The Pinellas board is being asked on Tuesday to consider a decidely narrow course. Principals want to satisfy the Palm Harbor controversy by crafting a provision that might allow some high school seniors, if reassigned due to a disciplinary infraction, to still participate in their home school's graduation ceremonies. That may be welcome news to the limited number of graduating students who are caught in such a disciplinary bind, but it seriously misses the point. The mandatory disciplinary rules are bad policy, by their nature, because they eliminate common sense and individual circumstance.

Scott Uhler, a Chicago attorney and education law expert who has helped write instructions for school districts that want to use zero tolerance, makes precisely that point. In an Illinois Bar Journal essay, his admonition to school districts is this: "Schools step onto thin ice when they diverge too dramatically from the principle of making the punishment fit the crime. . . . Given the increased scrutiny now being devoted to discipline policies and procedures, schools should be wary of "one size fits all' discipline policies."

Elected education policymakers should also be wary of the cheap politics surrounding the debate. Those who would endeavor to place more perspective on student behavior are often branded as "soft," as though they would relish student misconduct, violence or alcoholism. Pinellas board member Lee Benjamin, a retired principal and area superintendent, chided a fellow board member recently for expressing concern about the Palm Harbor case, suggesting she was "trying to do the popular thing." Yet a superficial political and popular appeal is precisely what is at the core of zero tolerance, and even the state's top education official is beginning to acknowledge that.

"No. 1, safety for our children and teachers is imperative, but it's also obvious to me that we need to apply reasonableness in these situations," says state Education Commissioner Charlie Crist, a former legislator who gained fame as "Chain Gang" Charlie. "It seems to me it would be prudent for all of us to review this arena (zero tolerance) to make sure that these rules are applied in a fashion that is reasonable, and that we are acting responsibly."

When the professionals who work closest to an 11-year-old boy can't exercise their best judgment on how to deal with a butter knife, then it is fair to say that the rules are neither prudent nor reasonable. What school board members will conclude, if they can step back from the politics and the lawyers and the battle-weary bureaucracy, is that zero tolerance treats too many children unfairly and is therefore counterproductive to learning. All schools need tough-minded discipline, but rules that are blindly intolerant of children have no business in the field of education.

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