'Zero tolerance': Making it work, making it fair

March 16, 1997|By Elise Armacost

THE PUBLIC SCHOOL news that touches the most sensitive nerve these days has nothing to do with instruction. It has to do with rules about Advil, penknives and childish kisses.

Every week, it seems, a different child becomes a celebrity because he or she unwittingly stepped into the "zero-tolerance" disciplinary trap. The story is always the same: a nice kid gets punished who either forgot about, didn't understand or ignored a rule against weapons, drugs or inappropriate behavior.

Locally, we've had The Pepper Spray Girl (Dundalk High), The Penknife Boy (Anne Arundel's Southern High), and, most recently, The Beeper Kid (Carroll County's East Middle). A front-page story in The New York Times last week detailed similar cases from across the country -- kids suspended for carrying Midol or packing a kitchen knife in a lunch box. The Times even found an 8-year-old in Louisiana sent to a school for troubled youth because she brought her grandfather's antique watch, which had a one-inch nail file on the fob, to class.

So far, sentiment over zero tolerance discipline has polarized neatly. At one pole are those -- including most educators and many parents -- who feel tough, inflexible rules are needed to keep schools safe and orderly, and to prevent kids who are popular or come from influential families from getting away with murder. At the other are those who say principals should make decisions based on what they know about individual students; that intent and circumstances ought to matter.

It's time for educators to find the middle ground. If they don't, we will continue to waste time arguing over the next Exacto Knife girl and Toy Gun boy instead of truly important matters.

How do we get to that point?

First, acknowledge that automatic suspension serves a purpose beyond deterrence and punishment. Immediately removing a child who set the bathroom on fire protects the other children while officials investigate. Perhaps the circumstances were not what they seemed, but we cannot put children at risk waiting to find out.

Second, realize that there are good reasons behind those sometimes petty rules. Punishing a well-meaning student who gave a friend a Seldane during allergy season may seem harsh, but schools cannot allow children to share prescription drugs. There is a reason you need a prescription to get them, after all.

Third, we need to revisit what we consider a serious offense. Sending an 8-year-old to reform school for carrying a nail file on a watch chain is absurd. So is suspending a teen-age girl for weeks because she used Midol. So is arresting a middle schooler who showed up with an inoperable beeper, as happened in Westminster last week. A rebuke and confiscation would have sufficed.

Other situations are iffier. What about scout knives on keyrings and kitchen knives in lunchpails? These are tools, not weapons. Of course, they could be used as weapons. But so could pointy umbrellas. Use of such things to threaten or harm certainly merits expulsion, but mere possession?

Finally -- and this is most important -- schools must see that zero tolerance and discretion are not mutually exclusive. Automatic expulsion for serious offenses can and should be followed by prompt review by a principal or other school official. He or she can examine the circumstances and decide whether to continue or mitigate the penalty. Leniency thus becomes a possibility and a privilege, not the norm.

Nearly all school systems allow appeals, but the appeals process often takes too long; months can pass before a case gets reviewed.

More than that, many school officials are reluctant to reduce punishments. They fear it undermines the deterrence and egalitarianism of zero tolerance. That is ridiculous. Incorrigible kids don't care either way. For those who do care, the suspension, whether appealable or not, is the deterrent. They don't want a suspension on their records, period. As for whether it's fair to show mercy to repentant kids with mitigating circumstances, of course it is.

Baltimore County, criticized last year for the way it handled an expulsion for pepper spray possession, has since required a review of mitigating circumstances wihin five days after automatic suspension. Complaints about the discipline policy have dropped, as have appeals to the school board.

A little reasonableness, and zero tolerance disappears from the headlines soon enough.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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