Thursday, December 02, 1999

Schools' zero tolerance debated




BY SARA J. BENNETT
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Zero-tolerance policies are sparking discussion around the Tristate as parents and educators debate whether the anti-school violence measures are too strict.

        Residents of Madeira, where two students were suspended for posting signs joking about a bomb, will hold a forum today on their school district's zero tolerance policy.

        Then on Dec. 13, public radio station WVXU-FM (91.7) will host a nationally broadcast forum. Titled “Zero Tolerance: The Answer or the Extreme?” the discussion at Cincinnati Museum Center will be moderated by NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon and include local parents, students, police, and school administrators.

        “(Zero tolerance) has been an issue not only locally but nationally,” said Vickie Jones, WVXU's director of administration. “We thought it would be a good thing for us to put on a town meeting so the issue could be addressed.”

        Zero tolerance reflects rising community concern over school shootings. Born of federal and state law, the policies say students must be punished strictly and swiftly for behavior such as bringing guns to school, using drugs or making threats.

        But recent incidents have caused some to question whether good kids are being punished for actions that not long ago would have been dismissed as youthful indiscretion.

        In September, Madeira senior Dana Heitner and another student were suspended for 10 days without class credit for putting school election signs in bathrooms that joked about a bomb in the toilet. Dana's parents and others in the community argued the punishment was too harsh, prompting Madeira to review its zero tolerance policy.

        Zero tolerance also has come under fire nationally. A Texas seventh-grader spent time in juvenile detention recently for writing a story that involved shooting students. And the Rev. Jesse Jackson has made headlines protesting the expulsion of six Decatur, Ill., students for brawling at a football game.

        Since Dana Heitner's suspension, the Madeira school board's policy subcommittee has been examining both the district's zero tolerance policy and the way it is enforced. The two-person subcommittee is expected to give its recommendations at the Dec. 6 board meeting.

        Some of those following the process say they haven't received ample opportunity to express their views. So they arranged tonight's forum.

        “What I'd really like to do is have a good cross-section of the community come,” said Rich Harwood, a parent and outgoing Madeira councilman. “I've always found when you have an issue with a lot of contention like this, however it goes, if you let everybody have their say, the results are embraced by more people.”

        Several district officials said they'll attend, including Superintendent Michele Hummel and policy subcommittee member Barbara Buchholz.

        Madeira's zero tolerance policy itself might not change much, Ms. Buchholz said. That's because Ohio law requires schools to have some kind of zero tolerance code.

        What may be tweaked is the way the policy is enforced. Dana Heitner's family, for example, has argued that suspended students should be allowed to make up missed

        work.

        “We are interested in knowing how other districts handle their suspensions and how they're enforcing their zero tolerance policies because we don't want to do something that is outrageously different,” Ms. Buchholz said.

        Still, she added, in the wake of incidents such as the April Columbine shootings that left 15 dead, schools must weigh carefully how much leeway they can allow for jokes.

        “It's an awesome and daunting task to know that you're responsible for the safety of 1,500 students,” she said. “We really need to make a decision that isn't in a vacuum and that considers what's best for the most.”

        WVXU's forum will take a wider view of the zero tolerance issue. Open to all in the Cincinnati area, it will be offered for broadcast by public radio stations nationwide.

        Panelists include:

        • John Lazares, superintendent of the Warren County Educational Service Center and author of a book about school management called Please Don't Call My Mother.

        • Dr. Paul Deardorf, staff psychologist for Tri-Health's Behavioral Health Services and clinic director for Hamilton County juvenile court.

        • Ken Hughes, Forest Park police chief.

        • Elaine Fink, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Cincinnati.

        • Two yet-to-be-announced parents and two students.

       



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