'Zero Tolerance' Under Fire

Most of us have seen the TV news stories about kids getting suspended for seemingly-innocent behavior.

Hugs in a school hallway and a bubble gun may sound silly, but critics say zero tolerance is no laughing matter.

"Someone who brings in a real knife intending to hurt someone can be treated the same way as someone who brings in a plastic knife."

Ronnie Casella is an education professor at the State University of New York and has written several books about school violence and zero tolerance policies. He says the rigid policies can start a dangerous chain reaction.

"Expulsion is often a step out of school into alternative schools, and from alternative schools for some kids into juvenile facilities."

State education officials say they don't have discipline records for the years before the Columbine attack, but figures for the years immediately show saw a higher-than-normal number of out-of-school suspensions, with suspensions reducing slightly since. Casella says most of the policies adopted immediately after Columbine were meant to cut down on violence. But now many zero tolerance policies apply to lesser offenses like disruptive behavior and truancy.

That's one of the reasons State Senator Charleta Tavares is pushing a bill to ban zero tolerance policies in Ohio. It's a 180 degree turn from a 15 year old law that REQUIRED districts to adopt zero tolerance for certain offenses, including excessive truancy.

"Is that a reason to then dismiss a child either permanently from the school setting for the rest of the year, or suspending the child for an indefinite period or a long period of time, which means the young person isn't getting their education."

Tavares wouldn't confirm or deny a connection, but the language in her bill appears copied directly from Columbus City School's "zero tolerance" policy. It calls for immediate punishment for violent, disruptive, or inappropriate behavior, including excessive truancy. WOSU asked the district for clarification, but a spokeswoman declined repeated requests for an interview.

It's hard to find a defender of zero tolerance policies. None of the districts called for this story wanted to comment, and the state teacher's union said they're still reviewing the bill. David Asbury directs legislative services at the Ohio School Board Association. He stopped short of defending zero tolerance, but he says state lawmakers like Tavares should not be telling teachers and principals how to punish students.

"Our belief is that discipline and discipline standards and consequences should be developed at the local level by the local boards of education. They know their communities best, and they along with their staff can determine what's the appropriate consequence."

Whether or not local districts will be able to keep their zero tolerance policies will hinge on Tavares' bill. It's been introduced in the Senate but not yet assigned to a committee. It's co-sponsored by three other Democrats but Tavares is confident it will win bi-partisan support.

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