Zero tolerance in school


WASHINGTON -- It was a five-star donnybrook that began as a punch-out between teen-age boys in the bleachers at a high school football game in the small Illinois town of Decatur. It kept on rolling to the other end of the bleachers, scattering spectators, some of whom received minor injuries.

Bleacher fights happen. But this one was different. It kept on rolling into the television sets of homes across the nation and morphed, with the speed of modern media, into a national argument, featuring the Rev. Jesse Jackson and a cast of thousands, all expressing a variety of pent-up resentments on both sides of the color line.

No one argues that the event, as videotaped by a spectator and shown repeatedly on national television, was intolerable, even horrible. Fueled by youthful rage and testosterone, the fracas rumbled through the bleachers from one end to the other, scattering spectators, endangering lives and setting off a panic that easily could have had worse casualties than the minor injuries that were reported.

The central issue is whether school officials were too harsh when they decided to expel for two years the seven students charged in the melee.

Yes, two years. They might as well have said "for life."

In wake of Columbine

Bill Maher, host of ABC's "Politically Incorrect," spoke for many when he said, after the story made national news, that the boys were "paying the price for Columbine." The horror of last spring's Columbine High School massacre in Colorado ignited an explosion of "zero tolerance" disciplinary policies in high schools across the country.

But zero-tolerance policies have been in four out of five high schools since at least 1997, according to the Department of Education. "Zero tolerance" is a popular idea. Episodes like the Decatur bleacher fight offer us an opportunity to examine whether it is a good idea.

Although the seven students all were black and the school officials involved all were white, Mr. Jackson insists that fairness, not race, is the issue. Unfortunately, that nuance has been lost on many observers.

Instead, the videotape has become something of an ink-blot test of what one is predisposed to see. Is it a near-riot? Or just one of many crazy fights that break out at sporting events somewhere every week, as Mr. Jackson suggests?

Both sides need to cool down and consider this question: What is best for the kids, not just in Decatur, but in high schools everywhere?

Yes, kids. We are, after all, talking about juveniles here. If school officials don't want to return these boys, who superintendent Kenneth Arndt says were chronic truants, to regular classes, that's understandable. Teachers have enough problems to handle these days without adding more disorderly students to the mix.

Unfortunately, kicking truants out of school is about as helpful as locking an alcoholic in a brewery.

The school board's later actions in response to Mr. Jackson's protest makes better sense. Instead of the two-year expulsion, the boys have been assigned for one year to an "alternative school," as officials call today's versions of what we called "reform school" back in my school days.

It is unfortunate that it took Mr. Jackson's intervention and the closing of the city's three high schools -- a panicky reaction to Mr. Jackson's announced protest march -- to move school officials to reach that sensible settlement. Instead of throwing these boys out of school, they should have been assigned immediately to the sort of school that could give them one last chance to learn without disturbing other students.

Our public schools are in a sorry state if they give up too quickly on troubled kids. Those who run last-chance "alternative schools" say these youths are crying out for somebody to lay down some rules and stern guidance, if only to show that somebody cares. Once they find the boundaries that their families have failed to give them, most respond in ways that enable them to rebuild their lives.

This entire episode should serve as a warning to school systems across the country to think carefully about the wisdom of zero-tolerance policies. As some critics have long lamented, "zero tolerance" means "zero thinking" when punishment is not tailored carefully to individual perpetrators and circumstances.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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