Groups critical of `no second chances' school proposal

January 27, 1999|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore schools' proposed new discipline code -- which includes a "no second chances" expulsion clause for everything from weapons violation to defacing school property -- is drawing fire from about a dozen community groups who say the policy is inflexible and unfair.

The city school board postponed a scheduled vote on the discipline code yesterday to make time for more community input and to consider a modification of the zero-tolerance clause. But board chairman J. Tyson Tildon said he wouldn't support changes that softened the policy too much.

"If it gets too flexible, then what's the point of it being a policy?" Tildon said. "That's what we have to discuss."

The zero-tolerance part of the discipline code was added by schools chief Robert Booker in December, in response to troubling reports of a virtual student free-for-all at Southern High School -- replete with guns in stairwells and assaults on teachers.

In strongly worded letters to the school board, the ACLU, Advocates for Children and Youth, The Baltimore Education Network and several other groups said the broadly worded policy is an overreaction to isolated incidents in the schools.

The groups agree that malicious students should be expelled, but the policy leaves principals no room for discretion.

Bring a gun to school, show up with a beer or deface a chalk board, and you're out -- after just one offense.

"It's hard for me to believe that they don't think principals should exercise their own judgment in dealing with these cases," said Bebe Verdery, the Maryland ACLU's education reform director. "Expulsion should be an option for certain cases, but they shouldn't take away the range of other alternatives."

Verdery said the zero-tolerance clause amounts to mandatory sentencing guidelines.

"Judges have no options and so a lot of sentences have been meted out in a way that many people would characterize as unfair," Verdery said. "Do we want principals to do the same thing?"

Lina Ayers, the director of schoolhouse services at Advocates for Children and Youth, said it's not difficult to imagine cases in which the zero-tolerance stance could be misapplied.

"We had a 6-year-old who brought a dart gun to show-and-tell in a city elementary school," said Ayers, who defends students in disciplinary hearings around the state. "And the principal wisely had the discretion to take care of that situation in-house. Under this policy, they wouldn't have that discretion. The child would have been put out."

Board member Dorothy Siegel said the board's intent is not to remove principals' judgment from the equation. Siegel said the opposite is true, because many of the zero-tolerance violations also show up in the policy as violations that can carry lesser penalties.

She said the key is training staff in schools to know when to use each response.

"This whole thing depends on us instilling wisdom through staff development and building resources to help teachers and principals make the right decisions when these things occur," Siegel said.

Pub Date: 1/27/99

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