Amid growing criticism from civil-rights activists and parents, some schools are reexamining their zero tolerance discipline policiesespecially when it comes to everyday student problems.
Using a zero-tolerance approach is particularly difficult at places like Manual High School in Indianapolis, where many of the students come from split families, poor homes, and rough neighborhoods, school officials said.
“Nothing is ever cut and dried when you’re dealing with children,” said Anita Silverman, an administrator at the high school.
The school’s concern is echoed by a recent study which suggests that zero tolerance policies, which have been imposed in schools across the country amid fears of mass shootings and riots, are having a disproportionate impact on black students.
An examination of suspension and expulsion rates at 10 large urban school districts found that blacks were disciplined at higher rates than whites. For example, in the Durham, N.C., district that was studied, blacks represented 58 percent of the studentsyet 68 percent of the students suspended or expelled were black.
“Black kids aren’t necessarily more likely to do something than white kids, so when you see suspension rates that are higher, that would indicate there’s something wrong going on,” said Libero Della Piana, who worked on the report for the Oakland-based Applied Research Council, a nonprofit public policy institute.
Some educators said these numbers don’t in themselves say anything about whether zero tolerance policies target black students, since they don’t show whether blacks and whites faced different punishments for the same offenses.
“The data is meaningless without knowing the infractions each student committed,” said Michael Carr, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “If you’re taking a black student and a white student who commit the same infraction, that’s when we can look at the numbers and see if there’s a difference.”
“Under zero tolerance, there are clear guidelines,” he added. “The way zero tolerance is supposed to work, it takes away the subjectivity and it’s about the infraction, not the person who commits the infraction.”
Still, the Indiana School Boards Association has taken notice, and agrees that the tough approach isn’t necessarily the best approach.
“Schools in Indiana that may have adopted zero-tolerance policies for a variety of things are stepping back, because it’s just not practical,” said association spokesman Frank Bush. “Even though zero-tolerance policies send a message, schools are realizing that every individual needs to be treated differently.”
Some common-sense zero-tolerance policies are widely used and enforced throughout Indiana, as in other states. For example, carrying a firearm to school can result in an automatic one-year expulsion. Buying or selling drugs on school property usually results in suspension or expulsion.
To play sports, most schools require students to sign a zero-tolerance policy against using drugs and alcohol.
But rigid, no-excuses punishment for lesser offenses isn’t sitting well with many parents, as seen in Decatur, Ill., where six black students were expelled after what supporters called a simple fight Sept. 17.
For weeks after the Decatur boys were expelled for fighting at a football game, the Rev. Jesse Jackson demonstrated on their behalf and pushed for a reexamination of zero-tolerance policies. “We want due process,” Jackson said.
In December, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission agreed to take a look at whether such policies unfairly affect minorities.
“School administrators who have to enforce discipline may want a one-size-fits-all policy,” said commission chairwoman Mary Frances Berry. “But on the other hand, one size doesn’t always fit all.”
The Applied Research Council’s program director, Terry Keleher, said policies that call for immediate, extreme disciplinary action may appease those concerned about safety, but the real problem is inequality.
“The easy thing to do is point fingers at other societal problems, like blaming parents or housing patterns,” he said. “But we feel there’s a lot of responsibility schools can take themselves to create conditions that can be safe and equal and stimulating for all students.”
Back at Manual, Silverman was faced with disciplining one girl who skipped gym class because she couldn’t afford to buy proper athletic shorts. Instead of punishing the girl, she worked the phones to find her a pair of shorts.
When a student wrote a death threatmeant to be a joketo a classmate, Silverman gave his instructor the option of demoting him from a key role in an extracurricular activity, or suspending him.
The challenges at Manual are especially great because of the revolving door of students, says Vice Principal Donna Lisle. Staff members see 54 percent of their students leave and new ones enroll each year.
Four school police officers roam the halls and grounds of Manual, sending troublemakers to the dean’s office. Teachers fed up with chatty or disruptive kids also send them to the two deans, who split the responsibility of keeping the 1,400 students in line.
“The key for us is building relationships with these kids,” said Dean Michael Bryant. “They get to know us, and can come to us before there’s a big problem.”