'Zero tolerance' run amok Anne Arundel County: Expulsion in penknife case should spur revision of draconian policy.

February 07, 1997

HOW MANY more automatic suspensions and expulsions will it take before the Anne Arundel County Board of Education rescinds its eight-month-old "zero tolerance" discipline policy?

The latest embarrassment, in which an otherwise exemplary student from Southern High School was suspended for the rest of the school year for having a penknife on his key chain, should be sufficient reason to question the wisdom of this draconian policy.

Maintaining school discipline is important. No one argues that point. But so is having a discipline system that is fair and just. There is no justice in a system that relies on one extreme punishment standard for offenses ranging from assaulting a teacher to carrying a penknife into school. What happened to the notion that the penalty should fit the crime, or, in the case of county schools, the offense?

A fundamental flaw of such zero-tolerance policies is that they are unforgiving. There is no recognition of intent. Mistaken actions are treated the same as premeditated ones. Students are children. Children make mistakes. No one expects adult behavior from children, yet the school discipline code does not permit children any room for mistakes.

First-time adult offenders charged with more serious crimes than carrying a penknife are often given probation and an admonition not to repeat the offense.

We should be able to make the same allowances for children, particularly ones who have had no previous disciplinary problems and where intent to cause harm or disruption is not at all evident.

The policy also overrides the authority of school principals, even as school systems move toward "site-based management." We expect principals to have good judgment, yet we don't allow them to exercise any in punishing certain types of misbehavior.

By maintaining an arbitrary discipline system, what kind of message are we sending to children?

They surmise that rules are a joke, particularly if hitting a teacher elicits the same punishment as carrying a penknife on a key ring. They also learn that adult authority is arbitrary, which only encourages rebellion. Are these the lessons we want children to learn?

Pub Date: 2/07/97

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