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Published: Sunday, 4/1/2001

Crackdown has prompted civil rights battles

BY KELLY LECKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Zweifler: `Parents are misinformed. They're frightened,' she says. Zweifler: `Parents are misinformed. They're frightened,' she says.
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The attempt by educators to fight school violence with no-nonsense discipline policies has landed school districts in the middle of some high-profile civil rights battles.

Increasingly, civil rights groups and student advocacy centers are appealing the suspensions and expulsions of students whom they feel have been unfairly disciplined. The battles have been fought in the courtroom and in the media.

“There certainly have been challenges around the country,” says Ron Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center. “The key is really striking the balance and creating clear behavior expectations without becoming too draconian.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has defended students all over the country who have been suspended or expelled. Many of the cases involve issues of free speech or free expression. Among them:

  • The Ohio ACLU helped successfully defend a Stow, Ohio, student who faced expulsion for designing a web site that was critical of the school.

  • A three-day suspension of a Boston Latin Academy student accused of writing a horror story for class in which an English teacher was attacked with a chainsaw was overturned in May after the ACLU of Boston stepped in to help.

  • The ACLU of Georgia defended an 11-year-old girl who was suspended for two weeks in September for having a Tweety bird wallet with a small chain on it. The school had forbidden chains. The suspension eventually was overturned.

    Michael Steinberg, legal director of the Michigan ACLU, says his agency and other states have challenged expulsions for jokes students made, essays they wrote, web sites they made after school, and T-shirts they wore.

    “There's been a steady flow of cases. It's less hysterical than last year, but [zero tolerance] has become institutionalized,” says Raymond Vasvari, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio.

    Educators say most parents and students appreciate strict discipline and zero tolerance as ways to keep children safe.

    The ACLU says it shouldn't matter. Students have civil rights too, and it's against the law to violate them.

    “That is the underlying foundation of a constitutional democracy. Civil liberties are not subject to the whims of the majority,” said Will Harrell, director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas.

    In addition to the civil liberties groups, student advocacy centers have been taking on the cause of students whom they believe have been unfairly suspended, expelled, or arrested.

    Ruth Zweifler, director of the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, said a large part of the work of her office focuses on student discipline.

    “The expulsion stuff is the big thing. It's really an inordinate amount of time,” she said. “What we're finding is we're getting a lot of work from outside our immediate area, and we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Parents are misinformed. They're frightened.”

    They have defended Boy Scouts who unintentionally left pocketknives in their backpacks after camping trips and a girl who was suspended for sniffing White Out.

    In Michigan, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Whitmore Lake school district near Ann Arbor for strip-searching students in gym class after a girl said she was missing some money.

    The high school girl had more than $300 in her backpack and told school officials that it was stolen during a class May 24. Male teachers ordered the boys to go into the locker room, where they made them stand in a circle, drop their pants and underwear, and lift up their shirts so they could be searched. One boy protested but was threatened with suspension.

    At some point, according to the lawsuit, police were called. Officers told the school that in order not to discriminate, the girls had to be searched too. The girls were put in a circle and had to lift up their shirts and drop their pants in front of female school officials, the lawsuit stated.

    “They said they were doing their best to recover the money,” said Michael Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan. “I don't think anything like this would have happened before Columbine.”

    The money was never found. Angry parents demanded an apology, but said they never got one.

    “What adult has the right, and I don't care what title they carry, to strip-search any children? I just can't believe the school did just that,” said Theo Downs, the mother of an 18-year-old girl who was searched.



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