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Apodaca: Rooting out problem better than knee-jerk suspension

June 07, 2013|By Patrice Apodaca

A renewed debate over discipline in schools is taking place across the country as a backlash against zero-tolerance policies gains momentum.

At issue is the use of suspensions to deal with students who are deemed to be "willfully defiant," a nebulous term that can include such behavior as talking back to teachers and breaking classroom rules. On the heels of national research suggesting that suspensions are administered unequally and inconsistently, some school districts — most notably Los Angeles Unified — have retreated from hard-line policies.

School discipline is always a tricky issue. The pendulum swings from tough tactics to softer approaches and back again, rarely settling on a perfect balance of justice, accountability and effectiveness.

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The 1999 Columbine school shootings set the wave of modern zero-tolerance policies in motion. Originally intended to apply to the most serious offenses, such as violent or threatening behavior, carrying weapons or distributing drugs, these policies over time broadened to include less egregious behavior such as rudeness and truancy.

That development has invited criticism that all behavioral problems are being treated with the sledgehammer approach, akin to putting misdemeanors on the same level as serious crimes. Education activists and researchers contend that such overzealous policies feed a host of ill effects, from declining graduation rates to overcrowded prisons.

Just last month, for example, yet another minor media storm erupted over the issue when a Virginia second-grader was suspended for pretending his pencil was a gun.

But more often the perceived problems with zero tolerance are less newsworthy, centering on the overuse of suspensions to deal with everyday behavioral issues when a more nuanced approach would suffice.

"We went too far," said Jane Garland, Newport-Mesa's director of outreach and advocacy programs. "We're using suspensions too much."

Indeed, Newport-Mesa's suspension rate of 4.7%, or 862 students, was higher than any other district in Orange County last year, Garland said. In part that's because, as a basic-aid district that's financed by local tax revenue, Newport-Mesa doesn't sacrifice state funding when students aren't in school.

Suspensions had become a crutch for dealing with a host of behavioral issues, she said.

"If you send a kid home for using a curse word, what's it going to do? Unless it's dangerous, suspensions don't work."

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