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Kids These Days:

Zero tolerance is brainless

October 19, 2009|By Steve Smith

Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s administration under Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard is to be commended for a level of communication that I have not seen in more than 12 years.

Between Hubbard and Laura Boss, the school district’s spokeswoman, each inquiry is handled promptly and efficiently.

It hasn’t always been so.

In the past few weeks, I have commended the district for its policy on sex education and its handling of President Obama’s ill-timed but important message to students.

Offering this compliment and reminding readers of ones past is an attempt to silence the number of people who will interpret the following criticism as merely another attempt to find fault with the district whenever and wherever possible.

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The subject today is the insistence on maintaining the silly, confusing and problematic disciplinary policy known as “zero tolerance.”

Under a strict zero-tolerance policy, a specific punishment is established for specific violations. Any student found in violation of zero-tolerance rules has no wiggle room — the punishment is set in stone. Zero tolerance, which became popular in the Reagan-Bush era, is designed to send students and parents the message that the school district takes education seriously, and that it will swiftly punish those who step out of line.

Zero tolerance is also supposed to level the playing field, so that the child of means receives the same punishment as the child living in the homeless shelter.

In researching the subject, I found this quote from Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake: “Zero tolerance and expulsion don’t have to go hand in hand. Zero tolerance simply means all misbehavior will have some sanction. It doesn’t mean you bring the maximum punishment for every transgression.”

Really? If we are not going to mete out the maximum punishment for every transgression, then there is no need for a zero-tolerance policy. If we are going to do what we should be doing, which is to allow school officials to decide each case on its own merits, then we do not have a zero-tolerance policy. We have a common-sense policy.

Locally, zero tolerance again is in the spotlight because of the district’s failure to properly punish four boys who, at the time, were students at Corona del Mar High School. They were involved in the creation and distribution of a video in which they threatened to rape and kill a fellow student.

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