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Published: Monday, 4/2/2001

Zero Tolerance: Expelled students left with limited options


FENTON, Mich. - Paul Merry was 12 years old when he was kicked out of public school forever.

He was in art class in the fifth grade at Farms Intermediate School near Fenton, north of Ann Arbor, making his dream house out of cardboard with an Exacto knife the substitute teacher gave him. A girl made fun of his house.

Paul was distraught. Other kids were always picking on him, his parents said, and he never handled teasing well. Paul pointed the Exacto knife at the girl and another student who was taunting him and demanded to be left alone.

At the end of class, one of the girls told the teacher.

The teacher in the room that day would later say that in her mind the whole ordeal could have ended with Paul filling out a “responsibility sheet,” detailing what he did wrong and how he could learn from it. But the situation got so far out of control.

As the teacher leaned in to talk to Paul, he swung back and accidentally struck her in the nose with his arm. Some confused students tackled Paul. A girl ran to the principal's office.

Paul was sent home, and school officials started proceedings that would lead to the boy's permanent expulsion from school. Under Michigan law, he is not allowed to attend any public school in the state. The education department couldn't direct the parents to an alternative school that could help because there weren't any around for students like Paul, who are accused of a violent act. The family was on its own.

It took an attorney and several appeals to get Paul tutoring and eventually back into school after a hearing officer said he never should have been expelled. Today, Paul is on the honor roll at his old school and was voted most valuable player on his cross country team.

Many other students aren't as lucky. They sit out of classes for a month, a year, or longer serving their expulsions because there are no alternative education programs for them.

A 16-year-old student was expelled permanently from the Whiteford school district just over the Ohio line in Monroe County late last year for chronic truancy and disruptive behavior. He cannot attend any public school in Michigan.

In Toledo, seven students were told to sit out 80 days for defacing a Bible in December, sparking rumors of a hit list that kept half the students at Bowsher High School home. Connie Pelow, the mother of one of the teens, said at the time, “If any of these kids go back to school, I will be highly surprised.”

In Ohio, the number of students expelled rose 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 356 expulsions last year in Toledo Public Schools.

Michigan has not kept track of how many students are expelled each year. A state law required the Department of Education to keep the statistics starting last year, but few schools reported the numbers to the state, and the figures that were reported were lost in a computer glitch.

Student advocates argue that children who are out of school even for a semester are more likely to drop out and tend to commit more crimes than other children.

“If you kick a kid out of school and say, `Come back in 180 days,' well, chances are they're not going to come back,” said Mike Harrow, assistant principal at Algonac High School, north of Detroit, who oversees a school for expelled children. And students dropping out, he said, “would be the worst consequence.”

Educators say they do not take the decision to expel lightly. Usually, they say, it is a last resort after months or years of bad behavior, and having problem students in a classroom won't benefit anyone.

“By this time the school has attempted to work with the parents and the student,” said John Gasidlo, superintendent of the Whiteford agricultural school district in Monroe County. “I guess I would ask the parents, `Where have you been the last three years when we've tried to work with you on academics?'”

When concern over school shootings reached an all-time high in the mid-1990s, schools responded with suspensions and zero-tolerance policies aimed at keeping guns and other weapons out of school buildings. Legislators reacted by passing tough anti-violence laws.

In Michigan, for example, a student who assaults a school employee is expelled permanently under a law passed in 1999. The student may petition to be readmitted after 180 days under some conditions. A student who verbally assaults a school employee is suspended or expelled for a length of time left up to school administrators.

Ohio passed a law that allows public schools to refuse to accept students who were expelled in other districts. For serious offenses in Michigan, students are not allowed to attend other public schools in the state.

“I truly believe we have thrown out the concept of universal public education,” said Ruth Zweifler, director of the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which helps students in discipline cases. “The parents get frightened and they have no way to turn. The school boards have already made up their minds.”

Paul Merry was one of the students caught up in the fear of school violence after the Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, where two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher. He had been in fights and had had angry outbursts in school before. The others times, he had gotten in-school or out-of-school suspensions.

But then he pointed the Exacto knife at the girls on April 29, 1999, just a week after the Columbine rampage. School violence was on everyone's mind. It didn't take long for his school to recommend permanent expulsion.

“There was no chance of return,” said Marsha Tuck, an attorney who represented Paul and represents other children - particularly special-education students - who are expelled. “It just got so blown out of proportion. There are options, except school districts do not really believe there are options.”

The Hartland Consolidated school superintendent and the attorney for the district did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

It wasn't until Paul's parents appealed and a hearing officer said the boy had a right to be educated that the boy was given a tutor part of the week. The case didn't end there, though, because the school district appealed and got an injunction from a state court to keep Paul out of school.

A state hearing officer ruled that school officials should have acted before the outburst to help Paul, and that they knew he had emotional problems. He noted that the principal had asked a social worker to put Paul in group therapy for his “sensitivity and impulsive reactions to teasing” but was refused. The hearing officer said Paul, a special-education student, acted out because of his emotional problems and it was against federal law to expel him for that. He also said the school followed “questionable” due process procedures.

In the 1970s, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that arose from a case titled Goss vs. Lopez said that children have a right to a public education. It is not a fundamental right, however, in the case of children who have been expelled and had a fair due process hearing.

There hasn't been a comprehensive study nationwide on what happens to expelled students.

Student advocates say the type of children who are kicked out are the ones struggling in school, and there's a danger they won't come back if they're not put in an education system.

“There are some people who say these things are a violation of civil rights, the government intruding too much. Others say if you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs,” said Russ Skiba, director of the Institute for Child Study at Indiana University. “But folks are beginning to realize that putting kids out on the street doesn't really solve the problem.”

He noted that a student involved in a shooting at a New Orleans school last fall got the gun from a student who was out on the street serving an expulsion.

School administrators say they understand students should be educated, but parents and the community need to understand that schools have tried all they can with many of these students, and there aren't any options left.

When a student is expelled from Toledo Public Schools, officials give the parents a list of area services that could help the student during the expulsion, says district spokeswoman Jane Bruss.

That list includes the Jerusalem Outreach Center, which provides schooling and counseling for students ages 8 to 17, and Linques Neighborhood Center, which provides help with behavior modification and social skills as well as math and English remediation. Parents also are given information on services like substance abuse and mental health counselors.

It is up to the parents to enroll the child in any of the services. The students may enroll in a charter or private school or in another public school, but none is required to take expelled students, and many don't. Expelled students may not enroll in another Toledo Public School facility.

Toledo schools used to send troubled students to the Jefferson Center, but it was closed last year in a budget-cutting move. The district contracted with Harbor Behavioral Center to monitor the children who were in the center when it closed.

The American Federation of Teachers supports zero-tolerance policies and considers them essential for maintaining order in classrooms so other students can learn.

But the organization supports providing alternative education for expelled students.

“Discipline is important but so is providing students with an education,” says federation spokeswoman Celia Lose. “We see time and time again students who have problems in regular classrooms really benefit from alternative school settings.”

According to Michigan Rep. Doug Spade (D., Adrian), the state needs to find a way to pay for alternative schools for expelled students, and then make schools educate them.

“We need to make sure the classroom and school has the atmosphere that's appropriate to learn, but at the same time to just throw a student out and not follow it with some help does not make sense.”

At least 26 states have set up alternative education programs to keep up with students kicked out of school because of zero-tolerance policies.

As in many states, discipline policies in Mississippi seemed to affect middle school boys the most. So in 1995 the state enacted a policy requiring districts to provide alternative school for many of those students and others who are expelled each year.

Students who take guns to school or commit certain other felonies are not protected by the law. Districts can provide them with alternative education but are not required to do so.

A key to the programs is parental involvement. Parents can be fined up to $250 for failing to show up for arranged school meetings, according to Neal Robinson, an alternative education coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Education.

Students typically attend the alternative school for a school quarter and then are put back in the regular classroom, although some students do stay longer.

Mr. Robinson said the state encourages administrators to consider the intent when a student violates zero-tolerance policies.

“You make them miss three days. You give them a zero for those days. Then you wonder why their test scores aren't going up,” he said.

Expulsions dropped slightly in Kentucky after the state required schools to provide alternative education for students while they were expelled. The state allows districts to share alternative education programs with other schools. Each district is responsible for funding the alternative schools.

Parents are responsible for educating kids who are expelled in Pennsylvania. However, if the parent hasn't found another school or program for the student in 30 days, the responsibility goes back to the district and the state.

Pennsylvania enacted laws setting up alternative education programs in 1997. With state grant money, each district was to set up its own alternative education program or contract with a private provider. The programs were not as much for expelled students as for students struggling in their normal classrooms.

Ohio officials are hoping a new program that gives money to schools for alternative education programs might cut down on the number of kids who are expelled.

The money, first handed out by the state last year, was designed to help schools set up programs to teach students who are struggling or who have habitual discipline problems. About $40 million was given out in the first year.

The state set up a model program for alternative schools, called the Ohio Accelerated School-Based Intervention Solution, or Project Oasis, and set up pilot programs at Springfield Local Schools and in Akron and Orrville. The three-year program helps fourth through seventh-grade students who have behavioral problems that caused them to be suspended.

Toledo Public Schools received $1.264 million from the alternative education grant program to use on alternative schools for at-risk youth.

The idea is to catch troubled students early - before they are expelled - and put them in a setting where they will not only get help with their schoolwork but may receive counseling or other attention. The goal is to return the students to the classroom.

State leaders hope the number of expelled students will decline as more children are treated early with alternative education. And while the schools aren't specifically designed to teach students who are suspended or expelled, some districts, including Defiance city schools, have chosen to use the money that way.

Defiance has an alternative program to help suspended and expelled students catch up on their learning, largely through a self-paced computer program that focuses on the basics. Each week, a counselor comes in and talks to the students about everything from drug abuse to the consequences of juvenile crime.

“We try to provide them with someone who can be a resource and not be intimidating,” says assistant superintendent Ian McGregor.

Students don't have to attend the alternative school, but if they choose to sit out, they will receive zeroes for the time they missed. Most go into the program. Children who commit violent acts are usually not allowed to attend. The program is in its third year.

Program teacher Tom Rex says younger students tend to be repeat offenders, but high school students rarely end up back in one of the 16 tiny cubicles in the alternative school.

“It's relatively punitive. There is no conversation. It gives them a time-out from what they were encountering in the classroom. It gives them a second chance to collect themselves emotionally and psychologically.”

Education officials in Ohio say the programs are a growing part of education in the state.

“It starts the process of working with students before they wind up in the courtroom,” department of education spokesman J.C. Benton said. “It's the classroom to avoid the courtroom.”

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