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The Bell Curve

JOSEPH N. BELL --

March 29, 2001

I have this basic conflict when I struggle with the zero-tolerance --

and, more recently, the "bullying" -- policies of the Newport-Mesa School

Board. On the one hand, I am viscerally opposed to any rigid system of

alleged justice in which individual circumstances are considered -- if at

all -- only after instant punishment is delivered. And, on the other

hand, I have a good deal of respect for the majority decisions of the

local school board, which makes me wonder how the members could be so

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wrongheaded on zero tolerance.

The only way I knew to resolve the conflict was to ask that question

directly, which is why I met last week for an hour and a half with School

Board President Dana Black. I came away from that session with my mind

changed on some points and not on others. But mostly I clarified some

perceptions that were either fuzzy or just plain wrong.

Although it seems a little silly, anyone challenging the board's

recent actions in these areas feels compelled to assert up front that he

is dead set, without equivocation, against drugs, alcohol, weapons and

bullying on any school campus. And so I hereby declare myself. But

declaring oneself against evil isn't the issue. Rather, the issue is

whether or not there are more positive than negative results from the

actions taken by the Newport-Mesa School Board to deal with these evils.

The most important point clarified for me was that Newport-Mesa isn't

ploughing any new ground here. Both the zero-tolerance and bullying

policies are set forth in the California Education Code. The Newport-Mesa

resolutions are picked up verbatim from that code.

But setting policy is only half the story. The other -- and, perhaps,

more important -- half is how those policies are to be enforced. This is

the area in which school districts differ -- and where I have some

problems with our school board. It is also important to point out that

there are two quite different procedures being followed in Newport-Mesa

to enforce the drug, alcohol and weapons policy as opposed to the

bullying policy.

In the first instance, Black explained, the enforcement is punitive, a

consequence of the student's actions. In the second, it empowers school

officials to support the rights of the kids by being able to tell parents

there is a problem and bringing focus to it.

She assured me that Newport-Mesa's enforcement of the California

student behavior code (known as 4210) relating to drugs, alcohol and

firearms is not as draconian as I have described it. The parents of the

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