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LESS YOUTH CRIME, MORE FEAR



Published: Thu, June 14, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Chicago Tribune: Although strict discipline helps to keep the peace in the nation's schools, the punishment should fit the crime. Such was not the case for Lindsay Brown.

The 18-year-old National Merit Scholar was not allowed to attend her high school graduation ceremonies this year in Fort Myers, Fla. The reason was as thin as the blade on the steak knife that school officials found on the floor of her car.

The knife probably fell out of a box while she was helping her parents move, she said. But, neither school officials nor the local sheriff would cut her any slack. She was suspended for five days, banned from her graduation ceremony and charged by sheriff's deputies with felony possession of a weapon on school property.

That's serious enough to jeopardize her college scholarship. Fortunately, the president of Florida Gulf Coast University said the school would cover her tuition if she lost the scholarship. Her chosen university apparently is not as hard-headed as her local school board.

Sadly, such institutionalized overreaction is not unusual in the era of zero-tolerance, especially after the Columbine High School massacre two years ago in Colorado.

There was the 7-year-old lad who was suspended in Granite City, Ill., for possession of a small nail clipper. There was the sixth-grade Georgia girl suspended over a 10-inch chain on her Tweety Bird wallet. There was the 13-year-old Texas boy who was suspended from school and jailed for five days for writing a scary story about a school shooting -- even though his teacher gave the story an A grade.

Zero-tolerance policies: Significantly, zero-tolerance policies have grown while statistics show violence by school-aged youth is on the decline.

Expulsions and suspension rates have risen to twice what they were in the 1970s. Fear of youth violence has soared nationwide, polls show, creating a political atmosphere in which punishments have become more severe, even as violence has declined.

Schools should demand proper behavior and punish students who don't follow suit. Schools have a responsibility to protect students -- and to teach them the responsibility of living in a community. But zero-tolerance policies make a virtue of inflexibility. They don't accommodate individual circumstances. They don't take a student's scholarship or behavior record into account. They don't assess the apparent motive for the violation. They don't explore suitable alternatives for punishment.

One-size-fits-all rules are not always the best way to deal with children.




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