Pubdate: Sun, 05 Sep 2004
Source: Kingsport Times-News (TN)
Copyright: 2004 Kingsport Publishing Corporation
Contact: 
http://gotricities.net/domains/timesnews.net/lettertoEditor.dna?action=new
Website: http://www.timesnews.net/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/1437
Author: Carmen Musick, Times-News
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/dare.htm (D.A.R.E.)
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/youth.htm (Youth)

SCHOOLS HAVE LATITUDE IN DEALING WITH ZERO-TOLERANCE OFFENSES

KINGSPORT - It has been 10 years since zero-tolerance policies swept the 
country, mandating a year's expulsion for any student who brought a firearm 
to school.

Since then, the policies have broadened to include weapons of all kinds, 
drugs and assaults against staff members. But that isn't the only change 
this once one-size-fits-all approach to discipline has undergone.

You may think, for example, that zero tolerance and expulsion go hand in 
hand. And they could. But they don't have to, and more often than not, they 
don't.

"I think when the law first went into effect, that was the interpretation 
of the law. Now that the law has been there for several years, they've 
given superintendents the authority to modify (the length of the suspension 
or expulsion)," said Tyler Fleming, director of students services for 
Kingsport City Schools.

The change gives school systems more flexibility to deal with issues on a 
case-by-case basis.

"Superintendents have been very good at looking at it situation by 
situation because they're not all the same. It's not as cut and dried as it 
sounds," Fleming said.

Take the 78 zero-tolerance offenses that occurred in Kingsport City and 
Sullivan County schools, for example. Only seven resulted in the maximum 
year's expulsion.

Cases involving drugs, the most common offense for both school systems, 
vary greatly and have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, the school 
officials said.

"In drug cases where it's experimental and they're not selling it, and 
depending on what the drug is, what we try to do is do some education and 
not invoke the total year's expulsion," said Sullivan County Director of 
Schools Glenn Arwood.

"If they bring a weapon, they're out a year. If they assault a teacher, 
they're out," he added.

That's not to say, Arwood and Fleming said, that drug offenses aren't taken 
seriously. They are.

"Depending on the situation surrounding the drug case, students may be out 
a year for that too," Arwood said. "But the weapon, there's no doubt about 
that. You bring a gun to school, you're out a year."

There are three general categories of zero-tolerance offenses - drugs, 
weapons and assault of a school staff member - defined in Tennessee Code 
(49-6-4216).

"A lot of people don't realize it, but it's a state law," Arwood said.

The intent of the law, spelled out in Tennessee Code, is to send a clear 
message that "any rule or policy designated as a zero-tolerance policy 
means that violations of that rule or policy will not be tolerated, and 
that violators will receive certain, swift, and reasoned punishment."

The penalty for a zero-tolerance offense is suspension or expulsion for up 
to a calendar year.

"It is not our intent to say we're going to disrupt your educational 
process. It's not our intent to take your right to have an education away 
from you," Arwood said.

The goal, Fleming stressed, is to make the school environment safe for 
everybody else.

There were 57 zero-tolerance offenses committed in Sullivan County's 29 
schools during the 2003-2004 school year. Of those, 53 were drugs. There 
were three weapons offenses (one gun and two knives) and one assault 
against a staff member.

The majority of drug cases involved prescription drugs and were pretty 
evenly divided between the middle schools (25) and high schools (28). The 
gun case occurred at a high school, and there was no ammunition involved.

Kingsport City Schools had 21 zero-tolerance cases during the 2003-2004 
school year.

"We saw only drug incidents last year. We were fortunate in the other 
areas," Fleming said.

Like in the county schools, the drug cases were fairly evenly split between 
the system's two middle schools (9) and its high school (12) - a disturbing 
trend for Arwood and other educators.

"I think it is moving in that direction [toward the middle schools], but 
I've not seen a rapid shift," Arwood said.

"But it gets discouraging because most systems work hard with the DARE and 
DREAM programs to educate our young people. We put a lot of effort into it 
and it makes us wonder what else we can do," he said.

It's never too early, Arwood said, for parents to talk to their children 
about drugs and the dangers associated with them.

"It's a very serious situation. Some drugs are unforgiving. Children can 
really mess themselves up. They can hurt themselves or even lose their 
lives," Arwood said.

When a zero-tolerance offense occurs - be it on school grounds, a school 
trip or even on the school bus - the school will complete an investigation 
during which time the student is usually suspended on a temporary basis.

School officials also contact either the police or sheriff's department or 
the school resource officer to report the incident.

Schools do not, however, wait for the outcome of the law enforcement's 
investigation to enforce their zero-tolerance policy.

"We have a great relationship with juvenile court, but they're bound by 
certain laws and guidelines we're not bound by and vice versa," Fleming said.

"We don't wait for the courts to act before we make our decision unless 
there's some reason to wait," he said.

Students suspended on a zero-tolerance offense appear before a student 
disciplinary authority or discipline hearing authority - usually made up of 
at least three adults in the school system.

"The reasoning for that is to make sure the investigation was done 
properly," Fleming said.

The committee makes a recommendation for discipline to the superintendent, 
who has the authority to modify the length of the suspension or expulsion 
on a case-by-case basis.

"I wouldn't say there's been any leniency at younger grades because it has 
just really depended on the situation more than anything else," Fleming said.

Special education students are handled somewhat differently.

"The law says we can do the expulsions, but we have to provide them an 
educational opportunity," Arwood said.

For other students who commit a zero-tolerance offense, the options may be 
more limited. Those options may include an alternative school, if the 
system offers one; private school or home schooling.

"All school systems are trying their best to provide an education for these 
students in some way, but in a more controlled environment than the typical 
school setting," Fleming said.

An option they don't have, Arwood and Fleming stressed, is a neighboring 
school system.

"We will not take anybody who is out of another school on zero tolerance," 
Arwood said.

"A student that was suspended at Sullivan South, for instance, couldn't 
come to Dobyns-Bennett and enroll," Fleming said.

Students and parents are made aware of zero-tolerance offenses and the 
discipline they warrant in the student handbooks distributed at the start 
of every school year in both systems.
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