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California and the West

Some Districts Easing Rules on Discipline

Schools: Mandatory expulsions for possessing a nail file or aspirin have led to reconsideration of the 'zero tolerance' policies in vogue a few years ago.


Just a few years after zero tolerance policies swept onto the nation's campuses in a fervor of anti-drug and anti-violence sentiment, some public schools are softening the rules.

The changes have been prompted by a number of cases in which educators found that mandatory expulsions and suspensions were too harsh for relatively minor alcohol and weapons incidents.

In Seattle, Boy Scouts were expelled for accidentally bringing their Scout knives to school. In south Orange County, a girl was kicked out for sipping a glass of champagne--served by her prom date's mother.

And then there was the 10-year-old in Colorado--later reinstated--who brought her mother's bread knife to school by mistake and was expelled, although she had turned it over to school authorities.

"We were just throwing kids out," said Ed Harcharik, assistant superintendent of the Brea Olinda school system in north Orange County, which recently scrapped its zero tolerance policy for more flexible rules. "It was a tough love policy without the love."

Today, the American Bar Assn., which is gathering in San Diego for its mid-year conference, is expected to adopt a formal resolution opposing zero tolerance at schools. Such policies cut against "every principle of fairness and justice," said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

The ABA resolution says that such policies are increasingly unhelpful, given that crime of all sorts has declined at public schools since 1990. Schwartz also cited studies showing that, despite their promise of subjecting all children to the same consequences, zero tolerance policies have punished black and Latino students disproportionately.

Not all school boards went for the harsher policies. While many suburban systems adopted strict rules, the trend was less pervasive in some larger school districts.

The Los Angeles district adheres to state rules that expel students for having guns and significant amounts of drugs, but it is almost unheard of for a student to be expelled for showing up at a school dance drunk, said Linda Wilson, the district's head of discipline.

And in many communities that adopted the absolutist policies, the districts continue to defend them. Ed Sussman, superintendent of the Downey Unified School District, credited his system's policy with drastically reducing campus violence and deterring drug and alcohol abuse.

But a growing number of districts are changing their policies, subtly and without fanfare. Administrators have begun meting out lighter sentences for knives and alcohol while maintaining that they still have zero tolerance policies. In many cases, students are unaware of the changes.

"It's taken about five years . . . but I started noticing last year that schools are rethinking it," said John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a legal education group that has fought against zero tolerance policies in court.

"We haven't seen as many dire cases in the last few months. I think, psychologically, schools are still using the term 'zero tolerance,' but they're starting to use a little more common sense and discretion."

Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, agreed.

"Many of our schools eliminated due process, and this is something protected under the 14th Amendment." Now, he said, "the policies are being redefined and relaxed. . . . They are providing for a greater degree of discretion and judgment."

Students' Futures Came Into Play

In the 30,000-student San Jose Unified School District, officials say they still have a zero tolerance policy. But "we have gotten better at looking at each case to make sure it makes sense," said Steve Berta, manager of student services.

San Jose adopted its zero tolerance policy in 1993. Other large Northern California districts, such as Oakland Unified and San Francisco Unified, did not enact such strict policies.

"It's the old pendulum swinging," Berta said. "The pendulum first swung out, and they were a little stricter, saying 'This could be a weapon, even though it's a nail file.' Eventually people started feeling that was not appropriate for what the policy was for."

In the Capistrano Unified School District, a fast-growing system in south Orange County, administrators no longer automatically expel or transfer students caught drinking, said Supt. James Fleming.

Ninety-four percent of Capistrano parents said in a 1999 survey that they like the district's seven-year-old zero tolerance policy.

But officials were finding it increasingly hard to stomach cases in which the Ivy League futures of weeping straight-A students were threatened because their prom dates had talked them into having a nip in the limo, Fleming said.

A turning point was the champagne incident. Before a high school winter formal three years ago, students gathered at one family's house so parents could take pictures. To celebrate, the parents passed a few bottles of champagne around to the children.

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