Saturday, November 6, 2010

Zero tolerance . . . policy or tradition?

Some interesting developments unfolded in the halls of New Paltz High School this week.  Several students were caught violating school policy on drugs, and the district's "zero tolerance policy" rolled into action, with the principal meting out multi-day out-of-school suspensions pending hearings.  Despite the fact that the case is swathed in rumor and cloaked in the secrecy necessary for dealing with kids, it's an opportunity to see how the school's code of conduct and due process work.

By cobbling together scant official reports with the existing rumor mill and some knowledgeable sources, I pulled together some details of the case.  Students generally believe that a dozen students were involved, but none of those questioned were able to provide more than one name.  The official line from superintendent Maria Rice was that the number I had heard was grossly exaggerated, and a source close to the investigation claimed that it was really only five students.  I spoke to the one kid whose name the other students knew, and he confirmed that the accusation was of selling marijuana (and, I'm going to guess, possession).  I was able to gather very little information about the other cases, but it appears that one of the other students may have been caught with a weapon (brass knuckles) and turned over the alleged drug dealer to cop a plea.

Now the fun begins.  At the beginning of the school year the board said that they were going to be looking at the "zero tolerance policy."  I reviewed the code with a board member, looking for a quote about that member's position on zero tolerance.  It took some time for the member to wade through the code of conduct, which didn't surprise me, but what did was what we didn't find . . . zero tolerance.

Wikipedia says that "zero-tolerance policy in schools is a policy of punishing any infraction of a rule, regardless of accidental mistakes, ignorance, or extenuating circumstances."  However, the district's code provides for a wide range of consequences for drug charges, ranging from an oral warning to permanent suspension from school.  (This is the same range of punishment that can be meted out for lying, possessing a cell phone or iPod on school premises, and using an obscene gesture.)  The superintendent is explicitly given the right to consider "extenuating circumstances" and other information when deciding on or approving of a disciplinary action.

With the board member befuddled, I contacted the district office to ask exactly where this "zero tolerance policy" exists.  I got a request to FOIL the info, and I'm considering exactly what to ask for.

The language of discipline in schools has changed.  OSS (out-of-school suspension) was not in my vocabulary as a kid - you were suspended, or you were not.  It was always in school.  If a kid got kicked out, we called it "expelled," and I think it happened once in my school years.  Now we have OSS and ISS, and OSS is considered a viable option.  Let's see how that works, shall we?

This kid is out of school until he gets a hearing in a week or so.  He will get maybe two hours of tutoring a day, and unless his parents don't work, he will be otherwise unsupervised.  So by sending him home, the schools have committed to spending money on a tutor above and beyond what his teachers already cost, right?  And since he's accused of breaking the law, I assume that there is some possibility that in his free time he will roam the community and perhaps do something that will require police activity - also paid for by my tax dollars.  If the student was remanded to the school as a non-dangerous but disruptive student, he could get his work sent to him all day long and require neither tutors, nor police.

Sounds to me like the school district is foisting off its problems on the rest of us.  I've talked about the problems with OSS before, and I think it needs to change.  If a kid is a danger to the schools he needs to be out of there - but that probably means the police need to be involved.  I doubt there is a case where the kid is really a danger and some kind of professional intervention (mental health, police, whatever) is not needed.  Why can't you keep the rest of these kids in the building?  Why are they being sent home?  It doesn't appear to be mandated by law, and so far I can't find the actual "zero intelligence tolerance policy" which is taking things out of their hands . . . so why is the school washing its hands and putting the problem back in our laps?

Considering the number of administrators making more than $150,000 a year, I think they can find a way to do just that.  We're paying them a lot, and I would like to see them use those well-paid brains to come up with a better idea, like keeping kids in school.