Back to School: Zero tolerance makes discipline more severe, involves the courts

7 Trends to Watch: Fifth of a series

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Remember the 10-year-old expelled last school year from Dible Elementary School in Penn Hills for taking a paintball gun to show-and-tell?

What about the seventh-grader at Huston Middle School in Westmoreland County suspended for chewing caffeine energy gum and sharing it with another classmate?

About the series

Starting early
From reading to algebra, everything in school is starting earlier
Math and reading
No Child Left Behind has altered the face of education
Performance data driving education now
Education booms into an $850 billion enterprise
Zero tolerance makes discipline more severe, involves the courts
Snacks, soft drinks banished as schools focus on nutrition
Higher Education
Lines blur between nonprofit and for-profit schools

Back to school in the region:
West: New technology, teachers greet pupils
North: It's a brand new year
South: Pupils return to healthier food, online learning   

Or the 5-year-old boy suspended from kindergarten eight years ago in Deer Lakes School District for wearing a firefighter costume equipped with a toy ax?

Cases like these have become far more common because of zero-tolerance policies that schools across the country have adopted in response to growing concerns about drug use and violence.

"The concern comes when the zero-tolerance policy is so rigid it can't account for some extenuating circumstances," said Tom Hutton, a staff attorney for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

Instead of being reserved for the most serious offenses, suspension, expulsion and criminal court referrals are now common reactions to student misconduct that used to be dealt with in school.

Triggered in part by the Columbine High School shooting in April 1999 that left 15 people dead, local zero-tolerance policies are born from state and federal laws that give school administrators little leeway in punishing students for behavior that is covered, such as bringing weapons to school, using drugs or alcohol, or making threats.

Over the years, some courts have intervened in cases in which school zero-tolerance policies were thought to be too harsh or had somehow violated the constitutional rights of students.

"Generally speaking, courts don't want to second-guess a school system," Mr. Hutton said. "Judges don't want to overrule schools left and right. But they will step in when there's a question of whether due process was met."

In Seal v. Morgan, a court case involving a school district in Tennessee, a student who was expelled in 2000 based on a zero-tolerance policy when a friend's knife was found in his car's glove compartment complained that the board expelled him without considering whether he knew the knife had been placed there. The board argued that the district was compelled to expel the student whether he knew the knife was there or not.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a school board "may not absolve itself of its obligation, legal and moral, to determine whether students intentionally committed the acts for which their expulsions are sought by hiding behind a zero-tolerance policy that purports to make the students' knowledge a non-issue."

Locally, court officials are seeing more cases that used to be handled in school systems.

"In the 1960s, things like smoking in the boy's bathroom were dealt with by the vice principal," said District Judge David Barton of Baldwin Township. "Now it's a criminal offense."

Judge Barton said fights used to be handled at school. Now the school calls police. Police conduct an investigation and cite the participants, resulting in fines and court costs of up to $426.50. If the students are at least 18 years old, fighting at school could lead to a 90-day jail sentence, he said.

District Judge Blaise Larotonda of Mt. Lebanon has mixed feelings on schools using zero tolerance.

"It limits your capability to handle each case individually, which is what you need to do, and as a judge we do all the time," he said. "Zero tolerance is a good concept because you have to send that message, but sometimes you can't afford that limitation."

Schools adopt zero-tolerance policies to allow administrators to impose serious penalties for even minor violations to reinforce the overall importance of following the rules.

"You have to have policies of this nature so that kids can come to school and feel safe," said John Thomas, superintendent of Aliquippa School District. "We have to give parents reassurance that schools will not tolerate inappropriate behavior that will disrupt teaching and learning."

While Mr. Thomas supports zero-tolerance policies, he also believes there are times when the spirit of the law may not be in harmony with the letter of the law.

"Sometimes you have to look at the infraction and use your good sense of judgment," he said.

The increasing use of zero-tolerance policies has yielded positive and negative results.

Some students who blatantly violate school rules against weapons, drugs and alcohol are punished before they cause harm or disrupt the learning environment. But sometimes a child with an otherwise clean record is expelled from school, suspended or sent to a detention facility to take classes with chronic offenders.

Records provided by the Allegheny County Probation Department show that the vast majority of students that public, charter and private school districts refer to the court system are African-American.

Of the 555 students who ended up under court supervision last school year, between September and June, 463 were black and 90 were white, said Jim Rieland, director of Allegheny County probation.

"Our intent is not to have zero tolerance, but to keep a kid in school and figure out what the problem is," Mr. Rieland said, adding that he believes the most troubling trend his department found during that nine-month period is more students assaulting teachers.

Most offenses involved weapons on school property. But the law doesn't confine weapons to guns and knives. One child was punished for using a bookbag to beat another student, Mr. Rieland said. Other common offenses include simple assaults and drug charges.

"I don't think citizens on the street would call any of these minor offenses," Mr. Rieland said. "These are offenses we should be concerned about. But over the years the trend is flat. I don't think we are getting any more or less in a substantial way."

A recent school safety report released by the Pennsylvania Department of Education shows that during the 2004-05 school year, school violence declined for the second year in a row statewide. There were significant decreases in fights, assaults on students, burglaries, racial and ethnic intimidation and incidents involving firearms.

In the past decade, every state has adopted a zero-tolerance law that orders districts to expel for at least one year students who bring guns to school. The measures comply with the 1994 federal gun-free schools law that requires every state to pass such legislation or forfeit federal education aid.

There are some loopholes, according to experts.

"The law says a superintendent could reduce the punishment and make exceptions," Mr. Hutton said. "But different places have interpreted that law differently."

Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said he thinks rules have to be tempered with common sense to avoid doing harm to children who don't deserve it.

"Ultimately, common sense has to come into play," he said. "Zero tolerance eliminates common sense and it doesn't account for unusual circumstances that would counsel mercy or leniency."

Mr. Walczak represents the family of Cory Johnson, who was suspended last year from New Brighton High School in Beaver County after students ridiculed him by calling him "Osama bin Laden" and he reacted in frustration, saying that if he were bin Laden, he would have "pulled a Columbine" by now.

"School districts need to understand when they overreact in these situations they do as much harm as when they don't react quickly enough," Mr. Walczak said.

People who support zero-tolerance policies believe they promote safety in schools and give everyone involved more peace of mind. Those who oppose the policies believe they lack rationale and logic and are way too extreme for schools.

Members of the Texas Federation of Teachers are trailblazers on the issue of zero tolerance. The organization helped pass the Safe Schools Act in 1995, which outlines circumstances under which a child can be removed from school for interfering with instruction.

"We helped invent the term 'zero tolerance' long ago, but unfortunately over time it's gotten convoluted," said Rob D'Amico, spokesman for the federation.

"Our position is we want the law followed. That doesn't mean if a child brings fingernail clippers to school we have to expel them," he said. "Unfortunately, some administrators make decisions that are outside the scope of the law and they don't use common sense."

Tim Grant can be reached at or 412-263-1591.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?