Zero-tolerance Adds Up To Lots
by Laura Pappano, 3/23/2003, The Chalkboard
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after junior Neil Cronin and three classmates were led out of
Duxbury High in handcuffs after a world languages teacher
reported that the students smelled like marijuana, the
17-year-old is back in school.
But the case, along with those of at least nine students in the
past year to face serious disciplinary action related to charges
of substance abuse, has set off fierce debate in the town over
the district's zero-tolerance policy.
While few question a school's right - and responsibility - to
punish students who violate rules aimed at keeping schools free
of drugs and weapons, some in Duxbury say overly harsh
punishments have made zero tolerance a troubled approach that
leaves too much power in the hands of school officials.
"Our community is morally offended by the actions of the school
administration," said Alison Rich, whose group, Concerned
Parents Respond, wants school officials to reexamine the
district's zero-tolerance policy. A group convened to do that,
the Substance Abuse Advisory Committee, will issue its report
Wednesday to the Duxbury School Committee.
While the anger in Duxbury has focused primarily on the severity
of punishments - one student was kicked out of school for eight
months for allegedly possessing marijuana and drug paraphernalia
- the cases and the rift they have created between parents and
school officials cuts to the challenge of enforcing collective
Are these cases youthful "stupid mistakes" or serious breaches
of law in a move to make schools safer? And more pointedly, how
can students who violate rules be set straight?
As no-nonsense as zero tolerance sounds, what it means and how
it is exercised varies among districts. In addition, the
definition of "expulsion" can range from suspending a student
from school to offering placement in an alternative program.
In Boston, suspensions longer than 10 days are termed
"expulsions," even though "we don't do any permanent
expulsions," said Ken Caldwell, chief of staff to Superintendent
Thomas W. Payzant.
A student who is intoxicated or caught with marijuana, he said,
is suspended for several days and assigned to counseling. Those
facing expulsions, he said, are assigned to counseling and an
Nationally, defining the scope of zero tolerance has been
troubling, said John Bynoe, associate commissioner for student
support services at the state Department of Education. At one
point in Texas, he said, "zero tolerance meant you couldn't chew
gum; they were expelling kids for chewing gum."
Bynoe said federal law requires districts to expel students who
bring a firearm to school. While one year is the recommendation,
it is up to local discretion. Similarly, he said state law says
students "may be" expelled for a number of weapons or
controlled-substance violations, but the "may be" is up to local
school systems. As long as districts first publish policies in
school handbooks, he said, they may later take action.
What's more, Massachusetts law states that students who are
"expelled" do not have to be enrolled by other districts. "They
lose their right to an education," said Bynoe.
It is losing the right to attend school that has fed furor in
Duxbury and raised questions, not just about zero-tolerance
policies but about how punishments are meted out.
Pat Cronin, Neil's father, said he was pressured by school
officials to withdraw Neil from school or face permanent
expulsion. Duxbury Assistant Superintendent John Kerrigan, who
will not speak about specific cases, said no parents received
Cronin said he felt his only recourse was to temporarily give up
guardianship of his son to relatives in Hanover so he could
attend Hanover High School. Neil returned to Duxbury High
earlier this month.
Francis Doran, a lawyer whose 17-year-old son, Rob, was
suspended for eight months for alleged possession of marijuana
and drug paraphernalia, said he spent more than $15,000 on
tutors so his son could keep up with schoolwork while he was
excluded from school. Rob returned Jan. 27.
Cronin and Doran are clear: They were upset about their sons'
behaviors and wanted them punished.
"To me, the fact that there would be kids doing drugs or alcohol
before school - there is a problem there. I can't in my wildest
dreams think about having a beer or smoking marijuana before
going to high school," said Cronin. "That indicates these kids
need some type of remediation."
Doran said he wanted his son to learn a lesson. "Not only were
we not opposed to punishment, we were in favor of it," he said.
"If they had told us he was out of school for a month, two
weeks, no extracurriculars, or if they had told us he was out of
school through the end of the school year, we wouldn't have been
surprised. But to carry it halfway through the next school
year?" That, said Doran, "is vengeful."
The bitterness he feels has turned him against zero-tolerance
policies - a notion he previously supported. "Duxbury should not
have a public policy that gives this wide-ranging power to each
and every principal," Doran said.
Eric Blumenson, professor of law at Suffolk University Law
School who has studied zero tolerance, describes it as a
heavy-handed approach to discipline that does not consider the
problem of student behavior - and a beneficial solution. "The
idea that depriving children at risk of an education would get
us somewhere is very shortsighted," he said.
Nationwide in recent years, Blumenson said, traditional
approaches to discipline from detentions, counseling, apologies,
special work, and other approaches "have gone by the wayside as
automatic suspension or expulsion have been implemented. All the
alternatives seem to be off the table."
But others say zero tolerance is a critical tool to reach
troubled youth early.
In Springfield Superintendent Joseph Burke describes zero
tolerance as "a cliche for doing what you say you are going to
do." Springfield has among the highest exclusion rates - rates
of suspending or expelling students - in the state. But Burke
said that's because serious incidents are taken seriously.
"It reflects the fact that this is a very, very safety-conscious
community," he said.
Although Springfield schools may have a relatively low threshold
for triggering major disciplinary action, students facing
suspensions of 30 days or more, he said, attend one of five
alternative schools in the city with programs aimed at a
student's specific problem, including arson, violence, or
The alternative schools, with nurturing environments and smaller
teacher-student ratios, are so popular that there is a waiting
list to enroll, said Burke, who noted that students opt to
remain even after formal expulsions end.
"What typically happens is the kids love it," he said.
Zero-tolerance policies can be absurd or they can alert parents
and school officials to a problem. A parent group in Virginia
reportedly ran afoul of a zero-tolerance policy when it gave
steak knives as a prize at a PTO meeting.
Kerrigan, the Duxbury assistant superintendent, concedes that
"it's been a difficult year" and feels "fairly strongly" there
will be changes in the policy.
Kenneth Shine, chairman of the town's Substance Abuse Advisory
Committee, said a survey of 20 districts' discipline policies
showed Duxbury to be "a little right of center."
But the critical matter, he said, is getting at the problems:
Why are so many students being caught with drugs or alcohol? How
might adults prevent students from using illicit substances in
the first place?
Indeed, zero tolerance might be the guiding legal force, but
common sense - and a commitment to helping, not alienating,
students - should prevail.