Do 'Zero Tolerance' School Discipline Policies Go Too Far?

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At other campuses, including Baltimore's Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, the war against suspension has not gone so well.

During the 2009–10 school year, Mergenthaler issued 342 suspensions and expulsions, one of the highest numbers in the district. Teachers say the vast majority of their students are not disruptive but that suspensions for the minority who act out on a regular basis help keep order in the building, a fortress-like structure serving well over 1,000 teenagers.

"With more suspensions, the administration had more time for classroom support," says McDaniels, the Mergenthaler English teacher. "They weren't just chasing kids around the hallways." Since then, the edict has come down that suspensions must be decreased. "It's kind of become like NBA rules: no blood, no foul," says Tony Polvino, another teacher.

Teachers say the administrators try hard to be supportive but that they must inure themselves to all manner of verbal threats. Students usually cannot be suspended for declaring, "I'm going to kick your ass," or calling classmates "bitches" and "hoes."

"Hearing 'F--- you' is not something that fazes me," says McDaniels. "I can't let it faze me. There's nothing I can do."

"I just say, 'Have a blessed day,' " says teacher Tom Proveaux, a 34-year veteran.

Ben Andersen, a second-year teacher, says that when he interviewed for his job, administrators asked him, "How well do you let things roll off your back? How do you respond to being mistreated? What do you do if someone cusses you out?" He adds, "If you say all that stuff won't bother you, then they say, 'Well, you're going to do well here.' "

The Mergenthaler teachers say they do not like to suspend students. But they do not believe they have enough support, in particular enough social workers, to help students who consistently act out in offensive and disruptive ways. And letting those students remain in the classroom only to cuss out and harass their teachers and classmates can mean everyone loses out.

Proveaux describes leaving the school in an ambulance one day after a particularly disruptive student shattered the glass in one of his classroom cabinets. "If I prefer one student's constitutional right to be here," he says, "what about the constitutional rights of the other 28 students?"

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