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Colorado is latest to reconsider zero-tolerance school policies

Shortly after a 6-year-old boy was suspended for singing a pop song to a girl — deemed sexual harassment — Colorado moved to ease disciplinary policies in schools, as other states have.

May 23, 2012|By Jenny Deam and Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Associated Press
Associated Press (m2nlbppd20120523073309/600 )

AURORA, Colo. — On May 2, D'Avonte Meadows, a 6-year-old with an infectious grin and rambunctious streak, was suspended for three days from Sable Elementary in suburban Denver for crooning "[I'm] Sexy and I Know It" to a girl in lunch line.

The school declared it sexual harassment and told his parents that, because D'Avonte sang the same song to the same girl before, he is a repeat offender. The news media pounced. And Stephanie Meadows, D'Avonte's 29-year-old mother, gave her bewildered son, a special needs student, a crash course in birds, bees and sexual boundaries.

The Aurora Public Schools initially stood firm with its finding of sexual harassment. Officials recently offered to remove the word "sexual" and instead consider D'Avonte a harasser. His parents rejected the offer.

"I'm not excusing my son's behavior," his mother insists. But this is a discipline issue, she says, not a sexual one: "He doesn't even know what it means. Where's the common sense?"

That question is being asked across the nation and a few miles away in the Colorado Statehouse. One week after D'Avonte was suspended, Colorado lawmakers passed a bill easing disciplinary policies in schools.

Colorado joins a growing number of states rethinking zero-tolerance policies requiring expulsion or suspension for behavior or actions that might once have meant a stern talking to or a visit to the principal's office. Now lawmakers want to give educators flexibility.

In California the Legislature is considering nine bills aimed at limiting school discipline. One would require schools that suspend more than 25% of their students to adopt strategies aimed at reducing behavior that leads to suspension.

"Schools are too prone to send kids home from school — by imposing out-of-school suspensions — even for behavior that doesn't pose a safety threat, and the Legislature has made it too easy," said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) in a recent news release. He's written several of the bills.

Zero-tolerance policies slowly gained favor in the 1990s as a way to curb school violence, especially involving weapons and drugs. The federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 required school districts to pass what came to be called zero-tolerance policies for firearms to remain eligible for federal funds. Then came the shooting at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999.

A no-excuses sensibility swept the land as the nation grappled with keeping schools safer, said Kathy Christie, a spokeswoman for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. Over time many schools' zero-tolerance policies included sexual harassment and anti-bullying measures.

But the winds changed.

Outrage stories emerged, like the 6-year-old Delaware boy who faced reform school for bringing his Cub Scout camping utensil that included a knife to school. Or the 9-year-old North Carolina boy suspended for sexual harassment after being overheard saying his teacher was "cute."

Or the middle school student in South Dakota who was suspended for 10 days because he gave a fellow student athlete a fish oil supplement — a violation of no-drugs policy.

"There began to be an acknowledgment that perhaps pieces of zero-tolerance convey the wrong message; that they were more stringent than they needed to be or that they allowed for serious, serious misinterpretation," said Christie, adding that sometimes schools used the one-size-fits-all policy as an excuse to remove troublesome students.

The American Bar Assn. now opposes zero-tolerance. The American Psychological Assn. has questioned its effectiveness. The American Assn. of University Women, which last year reported that nearly half of all middle and high school students had been sexually harassed, also opposes zero-tolerance as a solution.

The sponsor of the new Colorado law is state Sen. Linda Newell, a mother who remembers the horror of Columbine well. Her children were in lockdown at a nearby school that day when the shootings occurred in the town of Littleton, where she lives and which she represents.

She understands the need to keep schools safe — especially in an era of heightened vigilance against bullying — but there needs to be balance. "I want kids to come out of school with a diploma, not a criminal record," she said.

As for D'Avonte, he's back in school. His mother says he is unscathed; she and her husband less so. They worry their son is tainted in teachers' eyes and may transfer him. The NAACP is now involved. Mostly, Meadows is sad. "This didn't need to happen," she said.

Citing privacy, Aurora Public Schools will not discuss the case, issuing a statement telling other parents that "a student would not be suspended for merely singing a song." The district added, though, that "if actions warrant, we would consider suspending a student to emphasize the seriousness of the actions and to prevent further inappropriate behavior toward another student."

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