California rethinks ‘zero tolerance’

California lawmakers are rethinking “zero-tolerance” discipline laws that require schools to suspend or expel students caught selling drugs, brandishing a knife, possessing a firearm or explosive or sexually assaulting someone, reports the Oakland Tribune.

In the 2009-10 school year, 7 percent of K-12 students, 13 percent of those with disabilities and 18 percent of black students were suspended for at least one day in California schools, according to UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.

Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez, D-Coachella, has introduced a bill to end automatic suspension, except for firearm and explosives possession. In addition, principals would not be required to report illegal activities to law enforcement authorities.

. . .  it would require a governing board’s decision to expel a student to be based not only on the act itself, but on the grounds that “other means of correction are not feasible or have repeatedly failed to bring about proper conduct.”

Another bill would remove “defiance” as grounds for out-of-school suspension, but would let schools impose in-school suspension. “Willful defiance” leads to 40 percent of school suspensions, reports AP.

School suspensions were once reserved for serious offenses including fighting and bringing weapons or drugs on campus. But these days they’re just as likely for talking back to a teacher, cursing, walking into class late or even student eye rolling.

More than 40 percent of suspensions in California are for “willful defiance,” or any behavior that disrupts class, and critics say it’s a catchall that needs to be eliminated because it’s overused for trivial offenses, disproportionately used against black and Latino boys and alienates the students who need most to stay in school.

“It’s so broad it’s not useful,” said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president and chief executive of the nonprofit South Los Angeles Community Coalition. “You can’t quite define what it means, what it doesn’t mean.”

 I’ve never been a fan of zero tolerance and in-school suspension seems like a smart idea, but doesn’t this seem like a rather wide pendulum swing? It’s going to be difficult for a school board to expel a student for sexual assault or brandishing a knife.

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