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 Article of Interest - School Climate

Zero-tolerance Adds Up To Lots of Friction
by Laura Pappano, 3/23/2003, The Chalkboard
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Four months 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 values.

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 alternative school.

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 such pressure.

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 substance abuse.

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.


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