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Education Reporter

Disturbing Trends of 'Zero Tolerance'

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"Zero tolerance," which results in severe punishment for major and minor incidents alike, emerged from '80s federal drug enforcement policies. The concept entered education through the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. Schools have since applied the policy to issues that extend beyond those cited in the Act.

Russell J. Skiba's Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence report (Aug. 2000), stated: "There is as yet little evidence that the strategies typically associated with zero tolerance contribute to improved student behavior or overall school safety." Despite lack of evidence, the zero tolerance casualty list continues to grow.

On May 2, 2006 a six-year-old in Naples, Florida was charged with a felony for acting up in class. Takovia Allen, who has attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), kicked classroom aide Debra Dolan in the ankle while Dolan was lining up students in Lely Elementary School's special education class to go to a music lesson. After consultation with administrators, the Collier County Sheriff's Office took the 3'9", 50-pound Takovia into custody and detained her in juvenile jail for four hours. She was booked for one count of battery on a public education employee, a felony in Florida, and received a day's suspension. State prosecutors dropped the battery charges against Takovia on June 1. (Naples Daily News, 5-31-06, 6-01-06)

A Maynard, Massachusetts family is seeking a new school for their kindergartner who was forced to condemn hugging. Brenda Brier and Michael Marino's daughter Savannah was disciplined when she received a hug from a friend and reciprocated. Savannah's Greenmeadow Elementary teacher made her write a letter apologizing for what she did, which the teacher corrected and sent home with her. School officials are claiming after the fact that Savannah lifted her friend off the floor, a charge that Savannah and her parents dispute. (ABC News 5-Boston, 4-05-06)

An Indiana middle school student was suspended 10 days for accidentally bringing a pocketknife to school. Elliot Voge, a Stonybrook Middle School student, realized he had left the knife in his coat pocket and immediately turned it in to the school office. Voge was on the verge of being expelled, but district administrators cancelled the expulsion hearings when it received media attention. (Indianapolis Star, 4-04-06)

Daniel Zavala and Michael Sepulveda wanted to start a new tradition at their Riverside, California high school by bringing snow from the nearby San Bernardino Mountains for a snowball fight. Instead, Ramona High School suspended them for two days. Principal Mike Neese defended the school's actions, saying, "Anything that could cause injury, or could cause a student to get upset and instigate a fight, or damage students' personal property is just inappropriate behavior." (Riverside Press-Enterprise, 2-23-06)

Bizarre "zero-tolerance" stories are a small part of a disturbing trend. A report by the Advancement Project, an arm of the NAACP, says Florida schools rely too heavily "on isolation and removal" of misbehaving students, due to "zero-tolerance." Over three-quarters of "referrals" to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice are now for misdemeanor offenses.

School-issued suspensions have increased by 14% in the last 5 years, well above an 8% increase in Florida's student population during that time. "The educational system in Florida is starting to look more like the criminal justice system," said Monique Dixon, an Advancement Project attorney. (Miami Herald, 4-20-06)

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