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Zero-Tolerance Policies on Way Out

In 1994, Congress mandated that states receiving federal education money expel students for bringing guns onto school grounds.  What followed were zero-tolerance policies that resulted in more than a quarter of a billion arrests ("For More Teens, Arrests by Police Replace School Discipline," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21). Realizing that this draconian strategy has had unintended consequences, school districts across the country are belatedly rethinking this approach.

Two years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, adopted a new policy that referred students involved in non-serious altercations, petty thefts and minor vandalism to counseling rather than to juvenile court.  Serious offenses will continue to be handled by the police, as they should be.  "Willful defiance," which used to result in suspension, is now the province of restorative justice programs.  These programs focus more on repairing the harm caused by misbehavior than on punishment.  They are paying off.  For example, the San Francisco Unified School District saw suspensions drop from 2,270 in 2009 to 1,807 in 2012 using this program. Done properly, restorative justice balances the right of students to a second chance with the right of other students to an education in a safe environment.

Critics maintain that the magnitude of the decrease in both suspensions and incidents is open to question because principals are evaluated in part by their ability to keep order.  As a result, they have an incentive to underreport the facts.  There is truth to this charge.  But let's not forget that public schools are the schools of last resort.  They legally cannot operate like private and religious schools in deciding who is enrolled. I submit that if public schools had the same freedom the problem of misbehavior would be virtually eliminated.  

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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