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PD Editorial: School and the shortcomings of zero-tolerance

  • 8th grader at Hillcrest Middle School, Reilly Austin, and her mother Stacia Austin are fighting back against Reilly's expulsion from school after she admitting to take a sip of alcohol from a Pespi can while at school. Reilly says she thought it was a soda and was unaware of the alcohol, but the zero tolerance policy at the school demanded that she remain suspended for nearly a month, Monday, April 7, 2014. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

We acknowledge that educators have a tough job — one made more difficult by digital distractions, drug and alcohol use by teens and the tendency by some parents to come to the defense of their children at every turn, sometimes accompanied by an attorney.

But that's still no justification for zero-tolerance policies that often end up leaving administrators in positions that are untenable, uncaring and unreasonable.

The recent situation involving Hillcrest Middle School in Sebastopol appears to be one such example.

As staff writer Kerry Benefield reported Tuesday, the parents of three eighth-grade students who admitted sipping from a Pepsi can containing alcohol are at odds with the school over the appropriate punishment their children should have received.

If the facts are as the students and parents claim — that the children essentially were barred from campus for more than a month — they have a good argument for why the school went overboard, possibly in violation of a state law prohibiting suspensions longer than five consecutive days.

The story began on Oct. 15 when a male student produced a soda can at lunch that contained alcohol. As Benefield reported, Reilly Austin, an honor roll student, said she thought her classmate was kidding when he said there was alcohol in the soda. After taking a sip, she said she recognized that the drink contained whiskey and handed it back. The two other students gave similar stories.

The next day, they were notified that they would be suspended for five days. A week later, the families reportedly were told they would face a hearing involving possible expulsion if they did not agree to an independent study program at home. The program required the children to stay away from school until Nov. 18.

As a result, the students missed 22 consecutive days of classroom instruction and were not allowed to participate in any on-campus events or activities. Officials said this was required because of the district's zero-tolerance policy.

As we've noted before, the problem with zero-tolerance is that it also leaves zero room for discretion and proportion — punishments that best fit the crime.

But these kinds of cases are nothing new. Last year, a 7-year-old Maryland boy drew national attention when he was suspended after chewing a Pop-Tart into the shape of a pistol.


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