UF study: School district size often determines fate of zero tolerance
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The size of the school district often determines whether students are punished under zero tolerance policies and given another chance for an education, a new University of Florida study finds.
In Florida, larger school districts are more likely than smaller ones to have mandatory expulsion policies for students who bring guns to schools and to impose mandatory suspension for the possession of knives and drugs, as well as bullying, said Brian Schoonover, who completed the research for his doctoral dissertation in education at UF.
“Children are increasingly being sent to judges and jails for offenses that traditionally were dealt with in the principal’s office and after-school detentions,” said Schoonover, who is scheduled to present his findings Tuesday at the National Conference for Safe Schools and Communities in Washington, D.C. “Thirty years ago it would have been unusual to see a child handcuffed by a police officer. Today it is part of a growing trend that is commonly referred to as the ‘schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track’ or the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’”
Perhaps the biggest disparity between the different sized districts is that more than half of the state’s small districts — 53 percent — have no alternative educational setting for students who are expelled, compared to only 3 percent of large districts, Schoonover said.
“These are children who are no longer being given the opportunity to continue their education,” he said. “When these kids get kicked out of school and have nowhere to go, they are at risk for breaking into homes and vandalizing neighborhoods while people are at work.”
A mandatory 365-day expulsion is required under zero tolerance policies that became effective with 1994 passage of the federal Gun-Free Schools Act, Schoonover said. Because Florida school districts respect each other’s expulsions, expelled students have no classroom to attend unless their parents can afford to send them to a private school that will take them, he said.
Parents generally support zero tolerance policies as a way to rid schools of students who bring guns, knives and drugs to class, until the time their child is caught committing an offense, which may be unintentional, he said.
Currently, all 50 states have zero tolerance policies mentioned in their state laws, but Texas is the only state that requires schools to investigate intent before expelling a student from school for a violation, Schoonover said. “Zero tolerance policies, originally meant to keep guns out of schools, have evolved into a series of broad, all-encompassing policies that in extreme cases expel students as young as 5 years old for having temper tantrums or bringing a toy ax to their classroom Halloween party,” he said.
Of the 26,990 school-related referrals to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice during the 2004-05 school year, 76 percent were for misdemeanor offenses such as disorderly conduct, trespassing or assault and battery, which includes fights, he said.
It raises the question of whether students, some of whom are quite young, are best disciplined by youth resource officers who take them to detention centers or principals and teachers who instruct them how to change their behavior at school, he said.
Schoonover analyzed student conduct codes from Florida’s 67 county public school districts, classifying the 33 districts with more than 15,000 students as large and the 34 with fewer than 15,000 students as small.
He found that all of Florida’s large districts had mandatory expulsion policies for possession of a gun, compared with 85 percent of small districts. Differences were more pronounced for knives, with 88 percent of large districts having mandatory suspension policies, compared with 47 percent of small districts.
Next to guns, policies citing drugs were the most common, with 88 percent of large districts and 74 percent of small districts having mandatory suspension. Bullying was far less common, with only 27 percent of large districts and 15 percent of small districts requiring suspension for students who engage in such behavior, he said.
“As a researcher and a parent, I am anxious for schools to revise their codes of conduct to make them more useful in helping schools to deal with and change inappropriate behavior, rather than abandoning these students to the possibility of even worse behavior in our communities,” said Reece L. Peterson, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln special education professor who directed the “Safe and Responsive Schools” federal violence prevention project.