Cracking down on disruptive students 'Zero tolerance': Alternative schools for incorrigible students make sense.

January 11, 1996

THE NUMBER OF students committing assaults, carrying weapons or otherwise disrupting the classroom has been growing steadily -- and not just in the inner city. The problem has escalated to the point that Gov. Parris Glendening is assembling a package of legislation to deal with the problem, ranging from alternative schools to ensuring that teachers and principals have support so they can carry out a policy of "zero tolerance" toward disruptive youths.

In Anne Arundel County, for example, serious incidents have increased monthly since the start of this school year, with 267 assaults and 74 weapons offenses in the first three months alone. In Howard County, Alice Haskins, instructional director for middle schools, reports "an amazing number of really violent kids," many of them from wealthy families. Recently, she found 12-year-olds putting knives to each other's throats. Most area systems are cracking down with automatic expulsions for the most serious offenses. But a burgeoning population of criminally disruptive pupils remains in the classroom. They do not belong there.

Anne Arundel Superintendent Carol S. Parham is suggesting an alternative high school -- a school of last resort -- to get problem kids on the verge of expulsion out of the regular classroom and into a more structured setting where educators can, perhaps, save some of them. Such programs currently exist mainly in urban areas, but it is high time for some suburban systems to start using them, too.

It is neither elitist nor unreasonable for parents to expect their children's education and physical well-being not to be threatened by students who refuse to obey the rules of society. Programs to remove middle or highs schoolers are often too limited, and virtually no services exist at the elementary level, despite the rising number of seriously disruptive students in the lower grades. Common sense also dictates that reform efforts should begin as early as possible.

Well-run alternative schools are not jails. No one is suggesting problem students be locked up and forgotten. They will be taught by professionals providing more individual attention than most "good" students enjoy. They get a last chance, while everybody else gets to go to class without worrying that the kid across the aisle has a knife in his knapsack.

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