November 17, 2003

The nightmare of school violence and "zero tolerance"

Finally, the NYTimes weighs in with the big picture on the zero-tolerance madness currently sweeping our schools, using data mainly from Connecticut as an example. It's a huge, three-page article that examines the current state of the public school system, in which kids "are being kicked out of school like never before":

In [Connecticut's] school systems, zero tolerance has become more than a catch phrase...It is the way schools now do business, an almost unyielding policy that has been living up to its name.

As a result, students are being kicked out of schools like never before. The number of suspensions jumped about 90 percent from 1998-1999 to 2000-2001. In the 2000-2001 school year, 90,559 children were suspended from school around the state, up from 57,626 two years earlier...

Even kindergarteners haven't been spared. For that grade alone, the rate of suspensions/expulsions almost doubled over a two-year period, to 901 for the 2002-2003 school year, from 463 in 2001-2002, according to figures provided by Jeanne Milstein, the state's child advocate. She said they were suspended and expelled for such things as fighting, defiance, and temper tantrums. "I would have been suspended from kindergarten," she said.

Yeeks! Who decided that kindergarteners needed to be suspended? Is the Connecticut version of a four-year-old really that violent?

Some researchers, child advocacy groups and parents blame the increase on the fallout from the zero-tolerance policies that swept the country during the Reagan-Bush years and became entrenched after the Columbine shootings in 1999...In Newington, for example, the high school began a policy about five years ago to not only automatically suspend students caught fighting at the high school, but also have them arrested and charged with breach of peace.

Given that some parents whose kids were suspended for trumped-up crimes have reported hearing nothing but mutters about "Columbine" from their school officials, I'd say this conjectured relationship has some merit.'s not just urban schools that are struggling with discipline. New Fairfield schools have had more expulsions in the first couple of months of this school year than in any of the five full years that Dr. Kathleen Matusiak has been superintendent.

"A lot of the issues have to do with bringing weapons - box cutters, knives - to school, not necessarily with an intention to hurt," Dr. Matusiak said. "Some have involved alcohol and drugs, poor judgment. We have clearly articulated conduct codes that don't tolerate those things in our schools. Our schools are for teaching and learning."

It's that little "not necessarily with an intention to hurt" that is one reason for all the headaches. Kicking out honor students for having steak knives in their car is based on the assumption that any kid with any object that may reasonably considered a weapon is planning to hurt someone; otherwise, there's no reason to punish them for it.

Zero tolerance first appeared as the name of a 1986 program that impounded boats carrying drugs. In 1994, the Gun-Free Schools Act became law and called for a student to be expelled for one full year for carrying a firearm to school. Schools broadened the policy, using the same severe disciplinary measures for varying degrees of behavior.

That "broadening" is another reason for the headaches. Guns became knives became pencil sharpeners. At this point, a kid wanting to scare someone might as well bring a gun; at some schools, that won't result in any worse a punishment than having Grandpa's fish knife accidently left in one's car.

So are schools just overreating, or are kids really getting more violent? A Connecticut-based task force reports suggest that both things are happening in tandem; the same report suggest that zero tolerance policies don't seem to be fixing the problem:

"On the other hand, educators have indicated that they are experiencing increasing frequency and severity of disruptive behaviors among students," the report said. "The task force believes the emerging pattern in Connecticut public schools increasing use of suspension and expulsion as mainstays of our disciplinary response to behavior problems should be reversed."

One success story is mentioned, of one principal who helped a school move away from zero tolerance, and towards zero expulsions:

Steve Edwards became principal of East Hartford High School in 1992, after the school's administrators had embraced zero tolerance and suspension numbers were high.

A student brought a gun to school soon after Mr. Edwards arrived, and he was promptly expelled. Not long after, another student was found with a small pocket knife in his pocket...The Board of Education expelled him, too. Mr. Edwards disagreed with the second punishment, deeming it too extreme for the offense.

"The young man who had the gun had extensive history, the other kid had a couple of detentions. But they both received the same punishment," said Mr. Edwards, who left the high school last year to become vice president of the National Crime Prevention Council. "There was no flexibility, no taking into account the history of the child. So we took a different approach after that."

The approach changed so drastically that in the final eight years of Mr. Edwards' 10-year tenure at the school, not one child was expelled from East Hartford High School, he said. Counseling, a vocation component or volunteer work in the community, and a continuance of the education of the child, somewhere in the school if not in the classroom, contributed to the decrease, he said.

Meanwhile, though, some teachers are still afraid for their lives, and claim that lowering the standards of behavior, especially for inner-city kids, does no one any good:

The state determined in a report this year that there were no "persistently dangerous schools" operating in Connecticut, but talk to Hartford teachers. They disagreed.

"We've had so many staff injured," said Tim Murphy, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers. "We have seen a tremendous effort to reduce the numbers of suspensions and dropouts, but at what expense? We're facing a very hostile environment, and we are very exposed here."

"Every instance of bullying is supposed to be reported," Mr. Murphy said. "It's widespread, invasive in this school system. But the Hartford schools are telling us there were only three cases of bullying in the whole system last year. Are you kidding me?" He laughed bitterly. "There is a kind of belief that you have to tolerate a lesser standard of behavior now, for inner-city kids especially. We object to that strenuously."

How has the system developed so that a "weapon" owned by a kid with "no intention to harm" results in suspension, while a teacher actually being assaulted doesn't result in a report of an attack? Have we created a system that traps only the one-time miscreants while letting the chronic problem children slide through?

Doctors report that more kids are being sent to the ER because the administrators simply don't know what to do with them. Will this result in better treatment for problems? No one knows, but it certainly seems that zero tolerance policies, no matter how good their intention, are not the answer to reducing school violence.

Posted by kswygert at November 17, 2003 12:58 PM