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Critics Decry 'Zero Tolerance' Measures

Two students in Ohio are expelled, one for bringing a cap gun to school, another for entering "you will die an honorable death" in a fortune cookie project. An Indiana student is expelled for having over-the-counter diet pills in his locker — pills he had taken from a suicidal friend.

These suspensions are the results of so-called "zero tolerance" policies in U.S. public schools. The policies are tough disciplinary measures that resemble "three strikes" laws in the adult criminal code, and some critics are growing increasingly intolerant of them.

The policies have prompted a spike in school expulsions and suspensions. According to a new study on "zero tolerance" measures from the Justice Policy Institute, 64,000 students from kindergarten to grade 12 were suspended from school last year. 

The institute cites such figures as evidence that "zero tolerance" has gone too far and says the policies have created a dangerous loop between school discipline and law enforcement.

"Schools are becoming the agency for referring kids to police and into the juvenile justice system," charges Jason Ziebenberg, senior policy analyst for the institute.

And in many districts, students who are arrested outside the campus will be immediately suspended from school or expelled, depending on the crime. These crimes might include everything from underage drinking to assault with a weapon.

The study asserts that students today are "well behaved and reporting the same rates of crime seen in the 1970's," yet are being suspended out of school at double the numbers. The study also says that serious school crime has decreased in the last five years, including a 68 percent drop in juvenile homicide rates from 1993 to 1999. Today, juvenile homicides are at an all-time low since 1966.

But Joanne McDaniel, the acting director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, criticized the center's assertion that "zero tolerance" policies may have created an imprudent overlap between law enforcement and the obligations of the school system.

"Law enforcement, in many instances, are in the same mindset as the teachers in that they believe these kids need treatment rather than harsh punishment," she said. "We don't want to broad brush over the fact that there are many law enforcement officers in schools who want kids to do the right thing and help them onto the right course."

And supporters of "zero tolerance" measures point to recent studies that have suggested that students are more threatened with violence in schools today.

Last week, Alfred University issued its "Lethal Violence in Schools" report and found that 75 percent of students were concerned about a potential shooting at their schools. The study also indicated that more than 10 percent of students today are at risk of committing violent acts in school. And in May, the American Association of University Women reported that 2 out of 10 students said they feared they would be hurt or bothered by other students at school.

And supporters of the policies point to historical federal and local support for them. The 1994 Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act and the Gun-Free Schools Act tied federal education funds to policies adopted by local districts that would strike hard against illegal drug use and possession and impose a minimum one-year expulsion for students bringing firearms to school.

Support for "zero tolerance" grew in the wake of the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado in April 1999. State and local districts have in many cases broadened the federal rules to cover everything from knives to diet pills.

John Mitchell, a school safety and policy expert for the American Federation of Teachers, said he could see both sides of the issue.

"There are a number of things that come under 'zero tolerance' that shouldn't. We support it for illegal drugs and illegal weapons, but in some instances districts have tried to ban all kinds of behaviors and have called it 'zero tolerance,'" he said.

But he also believes the "tightening up" of rules against "low-level" behaviors such as disrupting class has contributed to a safer atmosphere in schools today.

Mitchell believes alternative measures, like special schools, peer mediation and anger management programs should be put in place for students who break the law or cannot be controlled in class. Sending them home — or to the juvenile justice system — will not necessarily help the child or society, he said.

"We can't just throw these children into the streets," said McDaniel. "It still seems that we are seeing a greater tendency to suspend kids. We need to recognize that if we are going to approach discipline in a positive way, these 'zero tolerance' policies need to be part of an overall approach."