MOVING BEYOND 'ZERO TOLERANCE'
For Many Indiana Youths, Getting Suspended Or Expelled Isn't The Break From Studies It Once Was
Bryan Bohanan was kicked out of school after he threw the second punch in a hallway scuffle.
The Noblesville High School freshman's punishment, however, included a court date and three days of schoolwork, not loafing at home.
"It's real boring," said Bryan, 14, who spent three days at a Hamilton County out-of-school suspension program. "I don't like it."
That's the point.
Fewer Indiana students are sitting out school as principals embrace alternatives to old-fashioned suspension and expulsion.
Today's troublemakers scrub pen ink off bathroom walls, take random drug tests, answer to juvenile court officials -- even see anger management counselors.
Many Indiana schools now give children second and third chances in an era when anti-bullying efforts and conflict resolution have trumped "zero tolerance" policies that arose after school shootings in the 1990s.
The new effort was spurred in part by pressure to improve graduation rates and steer children away from the juvenile justice system.
The move marks a dramatic change for a state that was found in an Indiana University study this year to have the highest expulsion rates in the nation. The standing concerns school safety groups and worries some policy-makers.
State law gives schools the flexibility to decide when to expel or suspend unruly students, although federal law requires administrators to expel students who take guns or weapons to school.
Fewer students have been expelled in recent years as alternative discipline programs have gained acceptance.
The number of statewide expulsions fell by 43 percent in the five-year period that ended in 2002-03, the most recent year for which data were available.
Fights and skipped classes top the trouble list in Indiana schools, but, in the past week, more dangerous offenses have drawn attention.
A West Vigo High School freshman was suspended for an alleged online "hit list," and a 13-year-old student in Gary was arrested with a handgun and marijuana. Also last week, a Valparaiso High School freshman was arrested after, authorities say, he attacked classmates with a machete and a tree saw.
Such cases underscore how much is at stake in the debate over the best discipline methods, a question that could rise to the attention of legislators next year.
In the meantime, many principals have found reasons to seek new approaches. Among them:
. A statewide focus on school accountability, higher academic standards and college attendance has forced principals to groom students for good grades and graduation. They say students who are suspended for several days or expelled -- the expulsion limit in Indiana is one year -- often fall behind in class work and fail.
. Some research suggests the traditional punishments simply funnel children toward the juvenile courts, which are overflowing in Indiana.
. Many principals believe scare tactics don't work on today's children, who look at expulsion and out-of-school suspensions as a license to stay home, sleep in and watch television.
"They're just more sophisticated than kids were 20 years ago," said Jim Bever, principal of Greenfield Middle School in Hancock County, where suspended children work at animal shelters and other community agencies. "Our kids today are not easily intimidated by threats."
That attitude caught on in Hamilton County a decade ago, when local prosecutors joined with school leaders in Noblesville and Carmel for a test project. Today, the out-of-school suspension program serves all 20 schools in the county, Grades 6-12.
Students who steal, vandalize, skip school, try drugs or otherwise break the rules make a court appearance. A judge sentences them to the program, where court officials act as teachers and students feel like prisoners.
Parents must drive their children to Noblesville, where instructors search their bags and pockets as they enter.
Then the children sit in silence for seven hours, forced to do schoolwork and quizzes their teachers fax to the building.
Students who try to sleep are told to stand next to their desks -- or to go home and come back the next day.
If students mess up, a police officer takes them to a juvenile detention center.
The silence irritates Bryan Bohanan, the Noblesville freshman who was suspended for three days last month. He admits things could be worse.
"I think it's better than regular out-of-school suspension, where all your work doesn't count and you get F's," he said. "It's better than being at home, too. I'd probably have to do chores or something."
Instead, Bryan's mother charged him $10 a day for a ride to and from the program. Linda Barrantes liked her son's punishment, despite the inconvenience.
"I think it's really important that kids shouldn't miss school at all," Barrantes said. "I also liked the discipline in there -- the no talking."
Some teachers like the option, too. Suzie Huber never forgot a student expelled more than two decades ago because he was in the school parking lot during a drug deal.
"He was not part of it, but, because he was there, he was expelled,"
said Huber, who has taught home economics for 27 years. "Anything that gives the kids a second chance is good."
Unruly students get at least three tries at the Hamilton County program before they're kicked out of school, said Jason Ashley, a juvenile detention group home director who supervises the students.
Automatic expulsion, however, remains an option at most schools.
"Everyone thinks it's like a prison here, like we're really mean,"
Ashley said. "But it's good because they don't want to come back."
The rate of repeat offenders is low, about 8 percent. But Ashley said students are serving longer sentences this year for more serious offenses.
A similar approach has caught on in Monroe, Allen, Hancock and other counties.
Other schools have taken different paths.
Students who are caught with drugs at Edgewood High School in Ellettsville can opt for mental health screenings and counseling instead of expulsion. They're also subject to random drug tests.
"I personally don't believe in no-tolerance policies," said Dirk Ackerman, assistant principal at Edgewood High. "I think we as a school need to do everything we can to keep kids in school."
Critics wonder whether schools that give children several chances fail to give them a reason to shape up.
"The same kids keep showing up in the office, and it gets to the point where enough is enough," said Tom Zobel, assistant principal at Shelbyville Senior High School. "If this is the world of work and you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing, at some point they're going to fire you."
No one keeps track of how many Indiana schools have revamped discipline policies, but research shows Indiana principals are sharply divided over the best remedy for bad behavior.
One-third of principals who responded to a statewide survey supported alternatives to expulsion and out-of-school suspension, while a third favored the traditional punishments, according to a study by Indiana University's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy. The final one-third fell somewhere in between.
"I think we are very deeply divided in our society about the right approach to disciplining our children," said Russ Skiba, who headed the IU study.
The issue is so touchy that even schools that embrace innovative discipline methods hesitate to promote the changes on a statewide stage.
Skiba's study found that fewer students pass the ISTEP-Plus, Indiana's statewide test, in schools that rely heavily on traditional expulsion and suspension. But most of the traditional punishments also take place in urban schools, which battle poverty and other factors that drag down test scores.
School discipline is expected to surface at the Statehouse in the next legislative session. A proposal two years ago that would have started a statewide version of Hamilton County's program failed, but legislators expect the bill to be reintroduced next year.
Some lawmakers also want statewide discipline guidelines, which they hope will curb the number of expulsions.
The proposal could cause friction with school officials who favor traditional punishments or local control.
"An issue in one school may not be an issue in another school," said Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, former chairman of the House Education Committee.
On the other side, children's advocates and school officials are looking for allies amid concern that state financial support for discipline programs will suffer under new Republican leadership, which is focused on paring the state's $800 million deficit.
School leaders, court officials and children's advocates will promote alternatives to suspension and expulsion at a statewide conference Friday.
"If we don't help these kids out, we'll be paying astronomical costs later as they enter the criminal justice system," said Jim Killen, director of the Indiana Youth Services Association.
"What we can't afford to do is tell kids when they misbehave that they can run the streets for five days. That's a recipe for disaster."