The stories of children who have been suspended for violations of zero-tolerance school policies are legion and often involve absurd situations. Take the seven-week suspension of Texas high school student Amy Deschenes, whose spotless academic and disciplinary record was soiled when campus police found her stepbrother's theater prop sword in the backseat of her car. Weapons, including swordlike objects, are forbidden according to the rules. But Deschenes and her family fought back, and now, thanks to them and a band of like-minded lobbying parents, Texas has adopted a more forgiving, flexible law.
"A child's life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark," Paul Deschenes, Amy's father, wrote on his website dedicated to battling the injustice he believed his daughter had suffered. In November 2008, Amy was suspended from George Bush High School in Fort Bend, a suburb of Houston, despite being a member of the National Honor Society and a student leader. Fortunately, she managed to focus on her studies while attending a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP) and even boosted her academic ranking while in exile, from 11th in her class to ninth. But the experience left a mark. "It's a really hard, unhappy thing, and it's not fair," Amy told a Houston television reporter in March just prior to testifying before a Texas legislative committee.
Zero-tolerance policies for violent, drug-related or otherwise unacceptable behavior grew out of federal mandates for education-funding in the early 1990s. The horrific slaughter at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, reinforced the rigid policies. In Texas, according to a state legislative study, some 144,000 students were sent to DAEP or juvenile-justice alternative education facilities in 2007; 25% of them had disabilities, and minorities made up 65% of the DAEP students and 73% of the juvenile-justice students. Violations ranged from sharing illegal substances or bringing weapons to school to engaging in a PDA a public display of affection.
"There are a number of kids who need to be there they do have problems, and we need to focus on them," says Fred Hink, executive director of Texas Zero Tolerance. Hink, citing a Texas senate research paper, says 10% of all the disciplined students are "completely innocent" and that "conservatively, about 30,000 are overpunished." Critics of zero tolerance say the warehousing of students at DAEP schools is a major issue. Students removed from the classroom are twice as likely to drop out, according to the Texas Education Agency (TEA).
"If a kid commits a crime off school grounds, he gets due process," Hink says. "If he commits a crime on school grounds, he doesn't get due process." The harshness of the procedures was evident in testimony to the Texas state legislature. In addition to Amy Deschenes, legislators also heard from a 10-year-old student who, urged by his friends, set off a school fire alarm: as part of his punishment, he had a mugshot taken at the juvenile-justice center.
The website of Hink's group details incident after incident of zero-tolerance absurdities and overreactions, some highlighted in press reports, others submitted by distraught parents who often complain they are not notified by school authorities until the child has been removed from campus. One mother of a young boy who helped a schoolmate set off a fire alarm learned of her son's plight from a text message he sent her: "Mom, I'm in trouble please come to school." A second text followed: "I'm probably going to jail." She found her son in leg shackles at the juvenile detention center. Similar stories prompted Florida legislators this spring to adopt changes to their law, but most states have shown zero tolerance for change, Hink says.
Telling the schools' side of the story is difficult, since privacy laws prohibit administrators from commenting on individual disciplinary cases. However, the lobby associations representing school administrators and school boards expressed their concerns to legislators about changing policies. In 2005 a bill was passed giving schools the option of considering mitigating circumstances before suspending or punishing students, but few districts opted for the change.
Prompted in part by the Deschenes case, the new Texas law mandating consideration of mitigating circumstances passed overwhelmingly this spring. The TEA, which sets statewide standards and policies, is welcoming the mandate. "This is a significant step. It gives principals and administrators a tool to say, Give us all the factors surrounding an incident," says Julie Harris-Lawrence, a deputy assistant commissioner. The new law allows principals to look at four mitigating factors: self-defense, intent or lack of intent, the disciplinary history of the student and whether the student has a disability that impairs judgment. "This is a huge tool for the administrators," Harris-Lawrence says. "In the past, there was almost no wiggle room. If a student accidentally brought a butter knife from Grandma's kitchen to cut her apple at school, it was treated the same as a butcher knife."
The head of the TEA, Commissioner Robert Scott, has added a second component to the policy change. If a student enrolled in college-bound courses is placed in a DAEP, Harris-Lawrence says, those lessons must be made available to him or her so that the student's graduation plan is not changed. In practical terms, that means an administrator might think twice about sending a student to DAEP if it means adding teaching resources to the alternative school.
In 2000 the American Bar Association, in a report on zero tolerance, said the policy casts a "cloud of fear over every student in every classroom." Despite the changes, Hink says the fear still exists and extends to parents. "Once the parents find out, there is initial anger, then they are overcome by helplessness and crawl back into a hole," he says. "There is a huge fear of retaliation." Hink says the new law is a "first step," and his group will be watching to see if the numbers change and those anguished posts from parents diminish.