At the urging of Jesse L. Jackson, whose demonstrations on behalf of six expelled Decatur, Ill., students gained national attention, the federal government is taking a closer look at schools' "zero-tolerance" policies.
The U.S. Civil Rights Commission decided today to explore whether such policies tend to disproportionately affect minority and disabled students, said Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry.
"School administrators who have to enforce discipline may want a one-size-fits-all policy," Berry said. "But on the other hand, one size doesn't always fit all."
Jackson said Education Secretary Richard W. Riley told him this week his office could not investigate zero-tolerance policies while a federal lawsuit is pending in the Decatur expulsions.
After the two met on Wednesday, Riley said the Clinton administration has proposed requiring that school districts have "sound and equitable discipline policies" or risk losing federal money. The proposal is to be included in legislation to reauthorize federal education programs.
The proposal also says suspended or expelled students should receive "appropriate supervision, counseling and educational services so they can meet state standards," Riley said.
The eight-member Civil Rights Commission will have experts and school administrators brief the panel in February on how the policies are applied and their impact. After that, the commission will decide whether it should recommend changes in enforcement of civil rights laws.
Jackson last month asked the federal civil rights commission to investigate the Decatur school board's discipline policies, claiming the board violated the rights of the students when it expelled them for fighting in the bleachers at a Sept. 17 football game.
Although the Decatur students were black, Jackson has said it is not an issue of race, but whether zero-tolerance policies are fair to all students.
The six were expelled for two years, and a seventh withdrew before he could be expelled. The school board later reduced the expulsions to a year and agreed to allow the students to attend alternative schools during that year.