Expert: End zero tolerance policies
Jun 01, 2010
An education-law advocacy group said ending zero-tolerance policies in schools as recommended in the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice on Thursday would have benefits far beyond the commission’s goal of preventing a recurrence of the “kids-for-cash” scandal seen in Luzerne County.
“Statistics show that any contact students have with police increases the likelihood of future contacts,” Education Law Center staff attorney David Lapp said. “People have termed it the ‘prison pipeline.’”
Zero tolerance became popular after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, and former county Juvenile Court judge Mark Ciavarella openly advocated zero tolerance for many students who were brought to his bench. Ciavarella and former county judge Michael Conahan are accused of accepting millions of dollars for actions that benefited a private juvenile detention facility in Pittston Township.
Several Pennsylvania high schools have had “remarkable success with restorative practices,” Lapp said. There are various models, but they often involve mediation, with an opportunity for the victim “to communicate to the offender why something was painful or hurtful, and an opportunity for the offender to figure out future ways to handle problems differently.”
The Education Law Center is also using the Interbranch Commission report in a fight to alter state Senate Bill 56, which is designed to make the school safety reports more uniform.
The state has compiled the safety data annually for more than a decade, but the weakness has always been that the information is self-reported by the schools. Different administrators may report the same type of incident under different categories – one person’s harassment may be another person’s assault. The state tightened the reporting procedures in 2005, but problems continued.
Lapp said SB 56 attempts to fix the problem by involving police more. “When it first came out it in 2009, it basically required schools to call them for anything that could remotely be considered a crime,” he said.
The bill has been “favorably amended,” but there is still a high risk administrators will simply opt to call police whenever they are unsure an incident matches the requirements, Lapp said. “A principal may not know the difference between aggravated assault and simple assault.
“We think it’s important that the data be accurately collected, but police don’t seem to be a necessary part of that, especially for incidents not of a violent or overly serious nature,” Lapp said.