Graduation rates go up, suspensions go down, and schools are safer when school officials do not use zero-tolerance policies but instead work to connect students to services that will give them support, Teske says.

Steven C. Teske, a juvenile court judge in Georgia, is leading a movement to change the way schools handle suspensions. He says the zero-tolerance policies that schools began implementing after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings do more harm than good—and the case of 16-year-old Lyndsay Benefiel of Maryland is a prime example.

Lyndsay’s mother, Elizabeth, gave her pepper spray for protection during her long walk to Severna Park High School. But after a former friend turned her in earlier this month for having it on school property, Lyndsay was suspended, is being referred to juvenile authorities, and could be charged with possession of a weapon on school property.

Her suspension has focused attention on the zero-tolerance policies enforced by many school systems. Such disciplinary policies are criticized by Teske and many other experts and parents, who say they punish students too harshly for small infractions.

In some cases, students have been kept out of schools for long periods, without access to an education, and have been charged criminally.

School officials say they must keep schools safe and take into consideration the welfare of the entire school community, not just of the individual.

“The school system has … an obligation to create a safe and orderly environment,” said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for Anne Arundel County, Md., schools, who declined to comment on the details of the Benefiel case, citing privacy concerns.

But some school systems have been questioning the zero-tolerance policies, instituted in response to incidents such as the deadly shootings at Columbine High in Colorado.

Teske says that when schools refer students to police for minor incidents, they clog the courts and reduce the time that prosecutors and judges have to deal with more serious juvenile cases such as fights, car thefts, and burglaries.