JODIE ULRICH'S errant pepper spray canister clouded more than just a cafeteria. It may have forced the public to rethink whether it truly wants "zero tolerance" discipline in the schools.
Surely, folks like its sound. "Zero tolerance" conjures up a get-tough, non-nonsense approach to what many agree is the thorniest problem in education. A Harris poll a few years back estimated that 160,000 children stay home from school daily because of fear. Another survey said one in 11 teachers has been attacked. Educators, parents and students are fed up with a small, but growing, number of rotten apples disrupting the learning process.
But the outrage that has followed the Baltimore County case of Jodie Ulrich has cast the whole issue, not in black and white, but shades of gray. The junior was kicked out of high school the rest of this year after pepper spray she carried for protection on her nighttime job was set off by another student. Many felt her punishment was too harsh for her crime -- and it was.
But deciding that Jodie should be returned to class appears a simpler call -- at least to people other than the county Board of Education and school Superintendent Anthony Marchione -- than deciding what comes next: Is there room for "common sense" in "zero tolerance?" Again, it sounds good, but it's not so simple when individual cases arise. In Anne Arundel, common sense apparently means that pepper spray is allowed because it's a "defensive weapon," but that sounds like a rule drafted by the National Rifle Association. Do we really want any weaponry in schools?
Discipline rules have historically varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction -- as they should. Different areas have different problems and, judging by suspension totals, different tolerances. However, the state legislature has eagerly begun chipping away at local authority in this area the past few years.
While school discipline should remain a local matter, the codes should share a common goal: To deter any intent by any individual to disrupt education or harm another person. "Good" kids should not get away with "bad" acts, but neither should intent be ignored in levying punishments. School boards should not be so driven to "send a message" that members lose track of what they're seeking in the first place.
Pub Date: 5/20/96