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Published: 4/1/2001

Zero Tolerance: School shootings create controversial new policies

BY KELLY LECKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

In 1980, a pocketknife was something boys carried. In 2001, it's a dangerous weapon.

Back then, crass jokes meant a visit to detention or the principal's office. Now they can get a kid arrested.

A panic over school violence in the last decade put a lot of pressure on officials to take care of any bad seeds. They are doing just that - by pushing problem students out the door.

Schools developed tough discipline codes - zero tolerance policies - to protect students from guns and violent behavior. Now, those policies sometimes include punishments for nonviolent offenses like smoking, swearing, and tardiness. Students who defy the rules face suspension or expulsion, long term removal from school. In some districts, expelled students sit out of classes for months because there are no alternatives set up to educate them.

More than 87,000 students were expelled nationwide in the 1997-98 school year, the latest statistics available, according to the Office for Civil Rights, a part of the U.S. Department of Education. There were more than 3.1 million children suspended that year, up from 1.7 million in the 1974-75 school year, and 2.4 million in 1991-92.

It's easy to see the dilemma schools face. Disruptive students take teachers' time and keep others from learning. Parents demand that schools keep their children safe, and administrators are afraid to ignore the slightest problem in light of shootings like the one March 5 in Santee, Calif., where two students died and 13 were injured.

But critics say when students are arrested for making inappropriate comments and kicked out of school for childhood pranks, things have gone too far.

The American Bar Association voted recently to oppose the zero-tolerance movement until punishments are changed to better fit the crimes and schools consider a student's intent and history. Even some educators are rethinking zero-tolerance policies to make them more flexible.

“One of my administrators just said, `I hope we're not getting to the point in this country where we're kicking kids out of school for things they said that nobody thought would actually happen,'” says Jim Hartley, superintendent of the Madison School District in Adrian.

Still, school officials and police say no threat in the classroom should be taken lightly.

“You have to keep in mind these are cases of people potentially threatening the safety of other students,” says Mike Magnusson, a consultant with the Ohio Department of Education Safe and Drug-Free School program.

Jason Kresser was an honor student and a top golfer at Sandusky High School. In September, 1999, he and a friend left school at lunchtime, and administrators were waiting when they came back.

Jason, who was a senior, says the principal accused him of using drugs. A test later at the hospital revealed nothing. He also had to empty his pockets. As soon as he laid his pocketknife on the table, he knew he was in trouble.

“I picked it up off my dresser that morning and put it in my pocket, just like my wallet,” he said. “I guess I knew there was a rule against it, but I really didn't think about it.”

The pocketknife was about as long as Jason's palm, a run-of-the-mill gadget boys carry. The tip was broken off. Jason said he used it to clean his golf cleats.

The school said the pocketknife was a dangerous weapon under its zero-tolerance policy, and it didn't matter that Jason didn't intend to hurt anyone. They expelled Jason for a semester.

He was sent home at first for 10 days, and then longer when Superintendent Richard Sulewski recommended expulsion Oct. 1. It wasn't until Oct. 14 that Jason learned he would sit out 90 days, would receive failing grades for the semester, and couldn't participate in any activities.

“She's walking around crying,” Jason's father Harry said of his wife, June. “He's walking around not talking to anyone. And the whole process has been very expensive, believe me. I could understand 10 days, but a whole semester?”

A fear of school violence in the 1980s and early 1990s prompted states to embrace zero tolerance.

In 1994, the federal government passed the Gun Free Schools Act, directing the expulsion of students for a year if they take guns and other dangerous weapons to school. It was later amended to give schools some room to reduce the penalty depending on the circumstances.

Violent crime in schools was dropping every year. The chance of a child dying in a school was one in two million, says the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based juvenile law center.

But the spate of high-profile shootings in rural districts, places thought of as safe havens, shook the country's confidence. School leaders under pressure to ensure the impossible - that a shooting could never happen in their districts - developed policies that listed offenses that would result in immediate suspension or expulsion.

Most states passed laws requiring the few districts that didn't have these discipline policies to adopt them. Michigan enacted such a law in 1995, Ohio in 1997.

But the crackdown in schools was going well beyond weapons:

  • A third-grade student from Hudson, Ohio, was suspended for two days when he wrote “You will die an honorable death” as part of an assignment to come up with sayings for fortune cookies.

  • Students have been disciplined for having nail clippers and butter knives, shooting paper clips across a cafeteria, and giving cough drops and aspirin to friends.

  • Ben Ratner thought he was doing the right thing when he took a knife away from his suicidal friend. His Virginia school district commended him for his noble act, but then suspended him for putting the knife in his locker instead of in the principal's office. He was out of school for 20 weeks.

    The trend has not escaped Toledo.

    Toledo Public Schools expelled seven students for 80 days each because of an incident Dec. 4 in which a Bible was defaced and rumors of violence spread through the school.

    A 1999 study in Milwaukee showed that 97 percent of expulsions and suspensions were for nonviolent behavior.

    By 1999, Wisconsin was expelling three times the students it did in 1992. In Delaware expulsions doubled. In Pennsylvania, expulsions rose 21 percent from 1998 to 1999. In Connecticut, students were suspended or expelled for more than 305,000 days in the 1998-99 school year. Two-thirds of the offenses were for “other” offenses including truancy, insubordination, profanity, and cutting class.

    Expulsions are defined in most states as 10 or more days out of school. When a student is out of school for fewer than 10 days, it is a suspension.

    “We've been inundated,” says Susan Cole, legal director of the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, a student rights organization. “It became very acceptable to kick kids out of school. Now we're on a slippery slope. We have a lot of kids expelled under the category `other.' This is not the way you make schools safer.”

    In Ohio, the number of students expelled increased from 5,500 in 1995 to more than 9,600 in 1998. Expulsions dropped to nearly 8,000 in 1999, and to 7,176 last year. There were 257,163 suspensions in Ohio last school year.

    In Toledo, the number of suspensions more than doubled from 1998-99 to last school year, when there were 27,163 out-of-school suspensions, includes a 25.4 per cent suspension rate, compared to a state average of 9.1 percent and a 21.9 percent average for similar districts. There were 356 expulsions last year in Toledo Public Schools.

    Michigan has not kept track of the number of students who are suspended or expelled.

    School officials say it is essential that disruptive children are removed from classrooms for the sake of the other students who are trying to learn.

    “You hear from teachers that one or two students can rob the classroom of valuable learning time,” says Celia Lose, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers.

    But some school administrators blame state laws requiring them to expel students for a number of offenses for the heavy-handed discipline going on in schools.

    Mr. Hartley, superintendent of Madison Schools in Adrian, said one of the hardest things he's had to do in his 25 years as an educator was to expel a student for one year for taking a knife to school to show off.

    Richard Fauble, superintendent in Tecumseh, Mich., defends zero tolerance. In March, 2000, administrators at Tecumseh recommended a fifth-grade boy be expelled for 180 days for taking a plastic toy gun to school. The case received national attention and the Tecumseh school board let the boy return to school. He was put on probation and given counseling.

    “If parents were doing a better job parenting instead of making excuses when children do something wrong, it would make things easier,” he said.

    Many students end up sitting at home or being out on the streets during their suspensions or expulsions.

    Some students are referred to alternative schools. The fates of others are left up to their parents, who scramble to find other schools which will take them. Jason Kresser's parents called all the public schools around Sandusky - none would let him in - before finally enrolling him in a Catholic school. They also hired an attorney and sued the school.

    The Ohio 6th District Court of Appeals ruled recently that the school board did not follow its own policy when it waited so long to give Jason a hearing. It ordered the school to take the expulsion off his record and to restore his grades. He is now a freshman at the Bowling Green State University Firelands campus.

    Mr. Sulewski, the Sandusky superintendent, says the school stands by its zero-tolerance policy, which the court did not challenge.

    Zero tolerance has most affected 12- to 14-year-old boys, according to expulsion statistics from more than a dozen states.

    “It is a kid's job at 13 to get under your skin. Zero tolerance is stupid, stupid, stupid. You have to look at this very carefully because you have this young student's life in your hand,” says Neal Robinson, an alternative-education coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Education.

    In September, 1999, nine students who had just started the ninth grade in the Lakeland school district near LaGrange, Ind., were expelled for the semester when they drank Gatorade spiked with alcohol at a high school football game.

    Most of them had only a swallow or two, and some denied they knew there was alcohol in it, but the district's zero-tolerance policy dictated the students be expelled.

    One of the students moved to Fort Wayne to go to another school district. The other eight sat out the semester and returned to school when their expulsions were up.

    The incident prompted crowded community meetings and heated debate over whether the school was too heavy-handed or simply protecting the other students.

    “It was a very stressful time,” says Rob McKinney, the father of Josh McKinney, one of the students who was expelled. “We were wondering if he really did it, upset about what happened. And he's under foot the whole time, on the couch instead of in school. How is it solving the problem by taking kids out of school and putting them on the street?”

    Russ Skiba, director for the Institute for Child Study at Indiana University, says 30 to 50 percent of suspended or expelled students will be repeat offenders. One study showed that suspended students are more likely to drop out.

    “The data seems to be saying the kids are not getting the message,” he says.

    Some students, particularly middle school-age boys, have reacted to the news of school shootings with pranks, jokes, or offhand comments to their friends. Many times, the jokes turn into rumors and the rumors into arrests.

    Consider these incidents:

  • Perrysburg police went to the home of a 13-year-old boy after school March 9 because some students said they heard him talking about an “army of doom” - part of a story he was writing - and about a web site that shows how to make a bomb. Police said some of the comments were made before the shooting near San Diego, but weren't reported until after that. The boy, seventh-grader Philip Schreffler, said he didn't mean any harm. He was charged by police with aggravated menacing and suspended from school until April 12, the date of the pre-trial hearing on the criminal charges.

  • Wood County authorities charged a 14-year-old boy, Troy Chamberlin, with aggravated menacing March 6 after students said he made comments about blowing up Otsego Middle School. On the same day, they charged an Eastwood High School student, Jeremy Dugan, 16, with aggravated menacing for allegedly looking at a web site in the school library that showed how to make bombs, and for making “repeated threats.”

  • A student who was on track in the fall of 1999 to be class valedictorian near Cincinnati was suspended when he put up campaign posters for his friend, who was running for city council. The posters, placed in the bathrooms of his high school, were a take-off on the movie Speed and said the toilet seats would explode if students didn't vote for the girl.

  • A 12-year-old boy from Old Fort was overheard telling a friend last year that he wanted to blow up a teacher's house and car. Deputies also found a notebook on him containing “racial-type symbols and writing” and references to the “trench coat mafia.” His grandmother said he didn't mean what he said, but a Seneca County judge sentenced David Scott McSwain to six months to nine years in juvenile detention.

    These situations used to be dealt with in the principal's office. Now they are handled with suspensions or expulsions. Most are referred directly to the police.

    “Which threat don't we take seriously?” asks Mr. Fauble, the Tecumseh superintendent. “I think people are taking things that were jokes a lot more seriously.”

    In the case of Philip Schreffler, 13, no one has accused him of making a direct threat to anyone. Daniel Paez, a Perrysburg detective sergeant, conceded to his mother that the boy might in part be a victim of fear from the Santee school shooting in California.

    “Sometimes people are motivated by issues that are currently going on, including the police department. Something happens like this, it's obviously on everybody's mind,” Sergeant Paez said during the interview with Philip and his mother. “Everybody's looking at us like, “Why are you just sitting there? Why aren't you doing something?'”

    The boy's mother taped the interview with Sergeant Paez and provided the tape to The Blade.

    It's a shady line between speech that is protected by the First Amendment and speech that is a crime. Courts have ruled that some speech is harmful enough to other people that it constitutes action, like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.

    But civil rights advocates say schools have gone too far.

    “I think it's unfair that everything is taken with deadly seriousness. There is no sense of humor, no sense of proportion, no sense of irony,” says Raymond Vasvari, legal director of the ACLU of Ohio. “I don't mean to say these things shouldn't be taken seriously, but we've thrown away one of the most valuable assets we have in curbing school violence, the flexibility and judgment of those who know [the students].”

    Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute, says punishing students for offensive speech could alienate them. “Schools have to say, wait a minute. Our kids aren't all killers, and if we treat them like killers they're going to pull away from us.”

    But school officials say it's impossible to know who is making idle threats and who is serious. Andy Williams,the 15-year-old who gunned down two fellow students in San Diego County, made comments about having a gun days before the rampage. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the Columbine shooters, also were heard making threats before they killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher.

    The ACLU said students should be aware that schools can restrict what they say to a large extent, and that inappropriate comments could lead to suspensions or expulsions. “But children have a right to express themselves in any way that is not materially disruptive to the learning process,” including making comments to their friends, says Mr. Vasvari of the Ohio ACLU.

    Still, police say it's easy for students to avoid being arrested: Don't talk - or even joke - about violence.



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