The shift is a quiet counterpoint to a long string of high-profile cases about severe punishments for childhood misjudgments. In recent months, a high school lacrosse player was suspended in Easton, Md., and led away in handcuffs for having a pocketknife in his gear bag that he said was for fixing lacrosse sticks. Earlier, a teenager in the Virginia community of Spotsylvania was expelled for blowing plastic pellets through a tube at classmates.
Now, in many areas, efforts are underway to find a more calibrated approach to school discipline. Educators are increasingly focused on the fallout of suspensions, which are linked to lower academic achievement and students dropping out.
In Delaware, for example, zero-tolerance cases were a repeated issue in the Christina School District, where a 6-year-old with a camping utensil that included a knife was suspended in 2009. Discipline procedures were revamped last year, giving administrators the discretion to consider a student’s intent and grade, as well as the risk of harm. Out-of-school suspensions in the state’s largest school system fell by one-third in a year.
“It’s a more child-centered approach,” said Wendy Lapham, a spokeswoman for the Christina schools.
In North Carolina, zero- tolerance also is being ratcheted back in the Wake County School District, the state’s largest. “This has been the biggest overhaul of our discipline policies in the last 30 years,” said Wake school board member Keith Sutton, who concluded that suspension numbers were so high at two schools that it was like “zero- tolerance gone wild.”
Taking a tough stand
Zero-tolerance ideas became part of federal education law under the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which mandates that those who bring firearms to school be expelled. Many states and school systems jumped in over the years, adopting automatic punishments for drug possession and behavioral offenses. It was a time of abiding concern about school safety, intensified by the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.
More broadly, it was a time of tough attitudes toward criminal sentencing, years when three-strikes laws were popular and political leaders had declared a war on drugs.
Now, “it’s become evident that simply suspending students and putting them on the street comes back and bites you,” said Bob Wise, a former governor of West Virginia and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.