Archive for Thursday, April 20, 2000

Zero tolerance has reduced school violence

April 20, 2000

National surveys indicate that the majority of students seven of every 10 believe a school shooting could happen in their communities even though there is a 1 in 2 million chance of being killed in a school.

It's a very real fear made more real by the one-year anniversary of the bloodiest school shooting in American history.

"I've always felt safe at school," said DeSoto High sophomore Rebecca Coffendaffer, who stayed home from school Tuesday after an anonymous phone call Monday threatened violence at a district elementary school. "This is the first time anything like this has happened here. I stayed home just to be on the safe side."

Many played it safe Tuesday. Attendance in the DeSoto school district was well below the average, but that's a sign of the times.

"Nothing can be taken for granted anymore," said Eudora High principal Marty Kobza. "Since Columbine, no threat is taken lightly."

School administrators have gone out of their way to make certain no threat of violence is taken lightly. But determining when a threat is legitimate has presented itself to be the greatest challenge, according to many educators and law enforcement officials.

"We look at all threats a lot closer now than we did 15 years ago," said Eudora Police Chief Bill Long. "If it was a legitimate threat back then, we looked at it. It doesn't take as big a threat nowadays to get our attention.

"This is a different day in time. We take them all seriously."

That's clearly the case.

A report shows that crime and violence in schools are down. However, suspensions are up at an alarming rate, while the expulsion rate has nearly doubled in the last 15 years.

What was once passed off as kids being kids can no longer be overlooked.

"After Columbine and Jonesboro (Ark.), we have finally accepted that school violence can happen anywhere," June Lane Arnette, associate director of the National School Safety Center, recently told The Denver Post. "We are more proactive now."

Zero tolerance has helped students feel more safe, but some critics argue it has put some innocent children victims of a system in place to curb far too violent a society in the legal system at an early age.

For example, earlier this year, a 3-year-old in the DeSoto preschool program was given what school superintendent Marilyn Layman called, "an extended timeout" for threatening another toddler.

The "extended timeout" in essence, was a three-day suspension from the preschool and was in line with the school district's zero-tolerance policy with threats. However, critics argue that disciplining someone too young to understand what he or she did wrong is a moot action.

"I feel good about the action we took and I would do the same thing again," Layman said.

Another incident occurred at an Ohio elementary school, when a third-grade class was asked to write a fortune cookie saying as part of a lesson in Asian culture. An 8-year-old boy came up with the phrase, "you will die with honor" and gave the saying to a classmate.

When the classmate started crying, the principal called the police and the boy was suspended, but later reinstated.

"It was clearly not a threat, but an over-reaction," said an attorney for the boy.

There is a fine line between a real threat and something else. A big part of the process now is determining the intent of the threat.

"We have to figure out the legitimacy of the threat," Kobza said. "There are questions we ask. It is a rigorous process to determine the legitimacy."

It's changed the duties of educators. Once able to concentrate on the academic progress of students, teachers must now be mindful of a student's state of mind.

"It's frustrating that we have to deal with this in our schools," Kobza said. "It's frustrating to me that we're not about teaching and learning, period. It's frustrating that society has gotten to the point that we have to look suspiciously at children."

Not so suspiciously, Kobza says, that he can't see the potential in the students who pass through the doors of Eudora High.

"When I look at a kid, I still see a kid who can be so many different things in life," Kobza said. "I look at a kid and I still see a kid. But I look at the actions of kids differently and I look at the behavior of kids differently.

"I have to."

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