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Editorial: Discretion Advised

Teachers and school administrators face many day-to-day challenges, but few are more daunting than maintaining discipline and meting out punishment. The challenges are so great, in fact, that many schools have adopted a formulaic approach, suspending or expelling students for a wide range of infractions, from carrying guns to school, a federal offense, to harmless pranks.

“Zero tolerance” became the preferred disciplinary policy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as educators, concerned about increasing school violence, sought to send a clear-cut message that certain behaviors would not be, well, tolerated. Today, most districts enforce zero tolerance for violations involving weapons, drugs, fights, gang-related activity, alcohol and tobacco. More than 3.3 million students were suspended or expelled in 2006, according to the most recent data available from the National Center on Education Statistics.

And therein lies a problem. Zero tolerance has led to millions of suspensions and expulsions but not necessarily to better-behaved students or to safer schools. Although developed to ensure firm and consistent discipline, zero tolerance policies indiscriminately punish disobedient and disaffected youths, many of them minorities, pushing them out of school and onto the streets. More often than not, they are kicked out of school for noncriminal violations that pose little danger to the school community. In 2006, 2,695 students were expelled for carrying firearms, a serious offense for which expulsion, mandated under the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, actually fits the crime; but those expulsions were a fraction of the total.

Furthermore, zero tolerance takes away the discretionary judgment of teachers and administrators, just as mandatory-minimum sentencing takes away the discretion of judges. After all, it’s one thing to expel a student for carrying a semi-automatic to school and quite another to expel one for having a squirt gun in his backpack, as actually happened in Seattle in 1998.

So we were heartened to read recently in The New York Times that a number of large urban districts are re-evaluating their disciplinary practices, replacing zero tolerance with policies that seek to keep students in school by offering them counseling and other social services aimed at changing their behavior. Los Angeles, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver and Florida’s Broward County, the country’s sixth-largest school district, are revising approaches to disorderly conduct, marijuana use and other misdemeanors that often lead to arrests and criminal records.

“A knee-jerk reaction for minor offenses, suspending and expelling students, this is not the business we should be in,” Broward Superintendent Robert W. Runcie told the Times. “We are not accepting that we need to have hundreds of students getting arrested and getting records that impact their lifelong chances to get a job, go into the military, get financial aid.” In many jurisdictions, the Times reported, the police and juvenile justice departments are encouraging schools to use more discretion when disciplining students, so that fewer are arrested and removed from school, which after all provides structure and supervision. Some states, including Florida, have changed their laws so as to allow school administrators greater flexibility in disciplinary matters.

Upper Valley school districts don’t generally face the relentless disciplinary problems typical of the country’s largest and poorest urban districts. Even so, a number of local schools over the years have applied zero tolerance in lieu of thoughtful discipline that takes into consideration the individual student and the context of the misdeed. That’s why the move away from zero tolerance is a move toward common sense, since there’s little evidence that it’s effective for schools or for students. In fact, suspension and expulsion often propel young people on an accelerated course to delinquency and increase the likelihood that they’ll drop out of school for good. That makes zero sense.