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Controversy Over 'Zero Tolerance'
by Connie Langland, Philadelphia Inquirer, January 23, 2005

Chris McCarthy had been looking forward to his junior year at Upper Moreland High School.

Elected president of his class, McCarthy, 16, had been named to the National Honor Society. His extracurricular activities included the soccer team, the drama club, and the annual blood drive.

Then, in November, a pocketknife put his high school career on hold - and placed him in the center of a growing controversy surrounding "zero-tolerance" policies.

Although Pennsylvania state law bans weapons from schools, more parents and officials say that cautious administrators are overreacting and expelling students for small infractions. More than 1,700 students in the state were disciplined for bringing knives to school in 2002-03.

This fall, McCarthy was among the offenders. He says he took his four-inch knife into the high school because he forgot it was in his pants.

His absentmindedness originally led to a two-week suspension. On legal advice, the local school board expelled him for the rest of the school year.

The expulsion angered McCarthy's parents, friends and coaches, who protested the board's decision. Two board members, Tim Curran and Mark Wenik, voted against the expulsion, saying that, in some cases, zero tolerance makes zero sense.

"Zero tolerance makes people feel good, makes them feel the schools are safe, but what does it really resolve?" Wenik said. "It seems to catch kids who have no intention of doing harm."

School safety and zero-tolerance laws became a national priority after the Columbine massacre on April 20, 1999, when two Colorado students killed 12 other students and a teacher before committing suicide.

"There were bomb threats, Internet threats, threats to teachers. The country was on edge, and people were particularly worried about our schools," said James Scanlon, superintendent of the Quakertown Community School District.

Now, he said, public opinion has swung toward moderation in meting out punishments. School officials are showing more restraint and taking a student's overall behavior and intentions into account.

"When no threats are made, when nobody's hurt, the superintendent can use some discretion," Scanlon said. In his district, for example, a third grader who brought a miniature pocketknife to school received "a short suspension" last week.

Harsh penalties in cases involving small knives, scissors, toy guns - even nail clippers - have contributed to a shift in views.

In Philadelphia, 10-year-old Porsche Brown was led from her elementary school in police handcuffs Dec. 9 after her teacher found a pair of scissors in her book bag.

"We are all concerned for our children's safety, but zero tolerance is, like, criminalizing children," said Porsche's mother, Rose Jackson. Her daughter was suspended for two days.

The incident sparked wide criticism, and city schools chief Paul Vallas and Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson later apologized to Porsche's mother. The district amended its rules for handling nonthreatening situations involving weapons at the elementary-school level: Police will no longer be summoned.

But the district's policy remains "zero tolerance when it comes to weapons and violence in our schools," said Vincent Thompson, a district spokesman.

Possession of a weapon, even unintentionally, can still result in suspension, assignment to a Saturday program, or transfer to a disciplinary school.

Part of the confusion over weapons cases stems from sections of Pennsylvania's Safe Schools Act that seem contradictory.

The first paragraph states that school districts "shall expel, for a period of not less than one year," any student in possession of a weapon.

But the law also gives the superintendent authority "to recommend modifications" on a case-by-case basis. Some districts read the law strictly; others say they consider multiple factors. Even expulsions can vary - from 11 days to one year to permanent.

Stuart Knade, chief counsel for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said the stiff weapons laws are proving frustrating to many.

"The law ties their hands to some degree and makes it more difficult for them to address individual cases," Knade said.

In 2002-03, the most recent school year for which statistics are available, Pennsylvania districts expelled 944 students and suspended 25,284 for incidents ranging from assault (12,218) to possession of a knife (1,728) to firearms possession (47).

New Jersey school districts use expulsion sparingly. That same school year, New Jersey districts expelled only 66 students, but they issued suspensions to 20,734.

That's because New Jersey's law specifically allows the local superintendent to modify punishment in weapons cases. So expulsion remains a last-resort policy, said Salvatore Illuzzi, superintendent of the Cinnaminson schools.

Superintendents have "a degree of latitude to interpret and apply the law," Illuzzi said. "You have to use your judgment."

Cinnaminson has expelled two students in three years, Illuzzi said. Both were serious cases that posed "a real threat," he said.

His staff also has dealt with young students' having scissors at school, he said. "We talk to the parents, talk to the students, put them in counseling, and it's over with," he said.

But many parents of students snared by zero-tolerance rules say schools continue to impose severe punishments for minor infractions. Such harsh responses ignore students' due-process rights and damage their lives, the parents say.

In Chester County, Andrew Follett Jr. was expelled from Downingtown East High School in March after school officials found a fishing knife in the trunk of his off-campus car.

School authorities initially called the high school junior from class on a tip about marijuana use. After searching his clothes and his book bag, they looked inside his car, parked on a church lot across the street.

They found two marijuana butts on the floor of the car - and a buck knife in a tackle box in the trunk.

The school board expelled Follett permanently for possessing a weapon, and local police cited him for disorderly conduct.

"They permanently changed the course of his life," said his father, Andrew Follett Sr. "They circumvented his due-process rights. They should not have that power. Your constitutional rights don't end at the schoolhouse door."

Now the younger Follett is pursuing a GED and works at a local department store, while his father intends to run for the school board to change the policy.

In Upper Moreland, McCarthy has taken his expulsion in stride. He has started classes at Montgomery County Community College, where he will earn college credits while doing course work he needs to graduate from Upper Moreland with his class in June 2006.

"At first I thought it was a horrible thing to happen," McCarthy said. "But really, it's a great opportunity to start college early and get a step ahead."

Curran still believes that the the Upper Moreland school board went too far.

"Zero tolerance prevents adults in the community from cutting a kid a break when he needs it," Curran said. "I know I would not be where I am now if there weren't adults along the way who cut me a break."

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