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One Strike and You're Out

Does zero tolerance work? Or does kicking kids out of school just make things worse?

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By Gregory Michie

First names only have been used for some people to protect their privacy.

My friend Mara was sitting in the reception area of a small parish grammar school last summer, waiting to inquire about registering her daughter for the upcoming fall term. She wasn't sure she'd be able to afford the school's monthly tuition bills, but she'd decided to check things out anyway--ask a few questions, pick up some forms, maybe even begin the application process.

The principal, a pleasant, conservatively dressed woman of about 50, welcomed Mara and then quickly ran through her sales pitch, emphasizing the school's small classes and exemplary level of parent involvement. She explained that Mara would be expected to put in her share of volunteer hours, then buzzed through basic information about student uniforms, tuition payment plans, and disciplinary procedures. "Oh yes," she added, pulling a piece of paper from a file folder and handing it to Mara. "You'll also need to sign this."

Mara took the form and glanced at it. At the top of the page, in capital letters, it read "Zero-Tolerance Agreement."

"All of our parents have to sign it," the principal said. "When you read it over, you'll see that it's a first-strike-you're-out situation. That means first offense--no discussion, no excuses."

Mara was taken aback by the conversation's sudden change in tone.

"We haven't had any complaints about the policy," continued the principal, perhaps noting the confusion on Mara's face. "The parents all think it's a good thing. With all the school shootings lately, we just..." Her voice trailed off. "Well, we just don't want to take any chances."

Mara scanned the list of offenses that could result in a student's swift and automatic expulsion--weapon possession, drug use, gang activity, fighting. But all she could think about was that her daughter was only five years old.

I don't think I'd ever heard the phrase "zero tolerance" when I began teaching in the Chicago Public Schools in the fall of 1990. That was before Paducah, before Jonesboro, before Littleton. But even before school shootings became a regular item on front pages and nightly newscasts, the idea that schools were dealing with a frightening new breed of violent, amoral youth was beginning to take hold. Newspaper and television reports of rising crime rates played alongside stories of drive-by shootings, gang-related murders, and children killing children. During my first year in the classroom I remember listening to an older colleague's running commentary as she read a magazine article about youth violence. "These kids get worse every year," she said, shaking her head. "They'd just as soon shoot you as look at you."

It was in this climate of fear--some of it justifiable, some not--that zero-tolerance policies began to be seen as a reasonable response to school safety concerns. Proponents argued that the measures would make educators' jobs easier by providing a clear framework for handling serious disciplinary cases. They said schools would be safer because students who caused problems would be removed and other students would be deterred from engaging in violent or criminal activity. Critics countered that zero-tolerance policies would unfairly target students of color, who already often faced stiffer punishments than their white counterparts for similar offenses. But proponents insisted the policies would be fair--there would be no ambiguity. If kids messed up, they were out. Period.

It didn't take long for the idea to gain momentum, and soon it was appearing frequently in the speeches and policy statements of school board members, politicians, and teachers' union representatives across the country. Parent groups jumped on the bandwagon, circulating petitions and doing grassroots organizing. To many, zero tolerance made perfect sense. After all, what teacher doesn't want his job to be a little less stressful? What parent doesn't want her child's school to be as safe as possible? What student doesn't want to receive the same treatment as her peers?

As a new teacher struggling to keep my head above water, I didn't pay much attention to these early rumblings. Not that I didn't think it was an important issue. I'd been as bombarded by media stories as the next person, and there were times--inside and outside of the classroom--when I felt the paranoia creeping in. But I was more worried about getting LeShawn to come to school consistently and getting Jason to pick up a book than about hypothetical situations involving weapons or drugs. I knew there was a real possibility that I might someday have to confront such a circumstance, but I guess I figured I'd cross that bridge if I came to it. I came to it about two months into my third year as a teacher.

The tardy bell had just rung at Seward elementary, a mammoth 100-year-old building in a mostly Mexican-American corner of Back of the Yards. I was at my third-floor hall-duty post, a blur of middle schoolers blowing past me in both directions. I said hello to passing kids, a little preoccupied because I had nothing planned for my first-period class, which began in ten minutes, but otherwise feeling pretty good given that it was Monday morning. Then up walked Julio.

Lumbering, baby-faced, and--to use his understated description--"kinda chunky," Julio was an eighth-grader who liked school a lot more than it liked him. He'd had little official academic success during his elementary career, but he showed up every day, cheerful, eager to learn what he could, ready to give it his best shot one more time. I didn't know him that well, but I sensed that he was a kid with a huge and generous heart.

"Hey, Michie," he said, reaching out one hand to shake mine, as he always did. He was carrying a dirt-smudged gym bag in the other.

"Morning," I answered, grasping his pudgy palm.

He glanced over his shoulder, then looked down the hall in the other direction. It was almost empty. "I need a favor," he said.

"OK," I replied.

"It's a big one," he said, a hint of worry showing on his face. "A real big one."

"OK. What is it?"

"But you can't tell nobody," he said, grabbing his gym bag with both hands. "I mean, I don't wanna get in trouble. I don't wanna get kicked out."

As far as I knew, Julio had never been in trouble for anything, not even minor rule bending, so I couldn't imagine why he thought he was at risk of getting booted out of school. More puzzled than concerned, I motioned him into my classroom.

"I need you to hold my bag for me," he said in hushed tones. "Just till the end of the day."

"OK. You wanna tell me why?"

"Um, well, it's uh," he stammered. "I brought something to school I wasn't supposed to bring."

I relaxed. I'd dealt with this one before: A kid brings some sort of technically against-the-rules but really not such a big-deal piece of contraband to school, suddenly is fearful of being discovered, and wants me to stash it for the day. I wondered what Julio wanted me to hold for him. A tape with explicit lyrics? A pack of cigarettes? A hand-me-down copy of Playboy? A pager?

I asked to see what he had, and he partially unzipped the gym bag, pulling it open at one end. I peered inside and saw the butt of a rifle.

I could hardly believe it. A gun? Contrary to popular belief, there wasn't a .22 in every desk and a knife in every backpack in CPS classrooms. This was the first time I'd seen an actual weapon in school, and I had no idea how to handle the situation. I had no precedent to fall back on, no well of experience to draw from, nothing from my teacher education courses that seemed relevant. I knew that the Board of Education had a detailed "uniform discipline code" that spelled out five categories of student misconduct and a range of disciplinary options for each. I'd never used the code, but I'd looked at it enough times to know that weapon possession was a Group 5 offense, the most severe--a minimum of six to ten days' suspension and a maximum of arrest and expulsion. I remembered a clause buried somewhere in the document that mentioned mitigating circumstances, but I also remembered stories of kids getting suspended for possessing objects that fit the definition of a weapon far less neatly than a gun--nail files, box cutters, Exacto knives.

All of this spun through my head in a matter of seconds, but it didn't help me figure out what to do. Relying on instinct--or maybe just stalling for time--I started asking questions.

Julio told me that it was a BB gun and that it wasn't loaded, though he had a box of BBs in the bag. He said he'd been visiting his uncle in the suburbs over the weekend and that he'd used his gym bag as a makeshift suitcase. His uncle liked to hunt, so Julio had taken along the BB gun, hoping the two might get in some target practice, though that didn't happen. He'd come home from his uncle's late Sunday night, woken up late for school, thrown on some clothes as fast as he could, and rushed out the door to beat the late bell. He pointed to his crazily cowlicked hair as evidence. It wasn't until he was inside the school that he'd remembered the gun.

I had no doubt that he was telling the truth. And it was obvious that he had no intention of using the gun, that he wasn't plotting any sort of attack, that bringing it to school was a complete accident. He wouldn't have told me about it otherwise.

So what did I do? I took the bag, locked it up in my closet, talked with Julio about the seriousness of the situation, and made him promise never to make such a mistake again. I returned the bag to him at the end of the day, watched him leave with it, and--until years later--never breathed a word to anyone. I had some further conversations with him about the dangers of guns and the risks involved with gun ownership, but nothing more ever came of the incident.

Julio graduated from eighth grade that June, scraping by with Ds in almost every subject, and went on to high school. I didn't think much more about the incident until several years later, when I read a story in Teacher Magazine about an 11-year-old student in Redwood City, California, who'd accidentally brought an unloaded BB gun to class. By this time Congress had passed the Gun-Free Schools Act--which mandated that any student caught with a firearm on campus be expelled--and school boards across the country had embraced zero tolerance as an all-purpose, get-tough, commonsense solution to school safety problems (the Chicago Public Schools adopted the policy in 1995). The boy in California was an honor student and had never been in trouble of any kind, but he was expelled from his elementary school under its zero-tolerance policy for his entire sixth-grade year.

I flashed back to that morning with Julio and began wildly second-guessing myself. What if another kid had somehow got the gun out of my closet? What if on the way home Julio had decided to show off the gun and had accidentally shot someone? What if he'd been emboldened by my inaction and had shown up with a real gun later in the year? I knew I hadn't handled the situation perfectly. It was poor judgment not to tell any other adult at school what happened, and I could have been more thorough in my follow-up. But the more I thought about the situation and my response to it, the more I was sure I'd done the right thing. Maybe I should have worked out some sort of creative punishment--have Julio do a project on gun violence or arrange for a guest speaker on the topic--but what good would it have done to suspend him or arrest him or expel him for a year? It wouldn't have made our school a safer place, it wouldn't have sent any message to the other students that they didn't already know, and it sure wouldn't have helped Julio.

But in many other zero-tolerance cases around the country, those factors didn't seem to enter the equation. Blind adherence to rules was winning out over doing what was in the best interest of children. Kids were being suspended or expelled for things like sharing a cough drop or a Midol capsule, bringing a steak knife to cut a piece of lunch-box chicken, or displaying a one-inch-long pocketknife during show-and-tell.

Even more troubling than the absurdity of the punishments in these instances was the willingness of adults in positions of authority to abdicate responsibility. Don't blame us, the administrators and school board members seemed to say. Our hands are tied; there's nothing we can do. It was an easy out. And that, I realized, had been part of the appeal of zero tolerance from the beginning: the promise of a simple solution to a complex problem.

Maybe that was why I hadn't been completely turned off by zero-tolerance proposals at first. Like most new teachers, I was still halfheartedly searching for magic pills--instructional methods that would work with every student, classroom-management techniques that would never fail. Deep down, I sensed that one-size-fits-all approaches were unrealistic, yet on the days when I felt my classroom was like a torpedoed ship--which were many--I found myself looking for quick fixes. But the longer I taught, the clearer it was that one size didn't fit all. There was no one way to teach reading effectively, no single method of motivating students, no perfect way to bring history lessons to life. And as much as some educators might have wished it were otherwise, the same went for questions of discipline and school safety.

The week before Thanksgiving in 1996, Armando, a 17-year-old former student, came by my house to visit. He told me he'd been suspended from his south-side high school yet again, this time for cutting class. "Man, I'm sick and tired of that," he said. "I mean, they're just dropping kids like it's nothing. Sometimes my teacher takes a kid to get written up, and she'll come back and say to us, 'OK, who's next? I'll suspend you for five days right now!' If teachers want kids to do better, why do they suspend them? They should be keeping them in school, not kicking them out. The guy in the detention room, he tells us, 'If you're doing so bad in school, why do you even bother to come?' Sometimes you feel like they don't even want you there."

The zero-tolerance policy the Chicago Public Schools adopted--which covers kindergarten through the 12th grade--had a dramatic impact in its first three years. According to Board of Education figures, student suspensions system-wide increased more than 51 percent (from 34,307 to 51,873) during this period and expulsions jumped from 21 in 1994-'95 to 668 in 1997-'98--an increase of over 3,000 percent. But as usual, the numbers tell only part of the story. While CPS's written zero-tolerance policy targets violent and drug-related offenses, more and more students such as Armando, who had no such marks on his record, found themselves kicked out for far less serious transgressions--excessive tardiness, skipping class, and failing to wear a student ID were a few of the most common. The uniform discipline code also allowed schools to suspend students for up to five days for repeated violations of catchall infractions such as "failing to abide by school rules" and "defying the authority of school personnel."

Critics of the Board of Education charged that schools were intentionally pushing students out in an effort to improve test scores. The central office denied the allegations, insisting that keeping students in school was a top priority. But while the board had initiated some legitimate efforts to curb the perennially high dropout rate, it had also turned up the heat on administrators to raise standardized test scores by any means necessary. Principals, fearing the threat of probation or school reconstitution, seemed to feel less of an incentive to hold on to kids who might be considered "problems." If those kids weren't in class, their low scores couldn't drag down the school's averages.

Once they were on the streets, it usually wasn't long before they got arrested for one petty offense or another, usually loitering. If schools had zero tolerance, some of the cops who worked Back of the Yards seemed to have even less. "All this neighborhood is," a white officer visiting my school once told me, "is one big gang." That sentiment isn't lost on the young people who live in the area. "The cops around here, they take advantage of their badge," says 20-year-old Paco, who read books about Houdini and dreamed of becoming a magician back when he was in my sixth-grade classroom. "They push people around. They look at us and they think, 'You're a gangbanger, you ain't got no goals. You ain't gonna be nobody in life. You belong in jail.' So they try to lock us up for any kinda reason." I'd heard the disrespectful way many cops speak to guys like Paco, and I'd seen officers rough kids up with no provocation. But it's easy to blame the police when so few of the rest of us--parents, teachers, businesspeople, government officials--are taking responsibility for what's happening to our city's young people.

It was disheartening, to say the least, to watch so many of my students graduate from eighth grade and then get pushed out of school only to wind up on the streets or locked up. I knew most of these guys well enough to see that, although they'd made some poor choices, they still had plenty of potential. What they needed was another chance.

I was getting ready to leave for school one morning in February 1998 when I flipped on the radio to check the weather. I was only half listening to the news reports when the phrase "4900 block of South Paulina"--which isn't too far from Seward--caught my attention. "Double murder last night...14- and 15-year-old are dead....Teen in custody....Police say it could be gang related." Feeling my stomach tighten, I turned off the radio, grabbed my book bag, and headed out the door.

Soon after arriving at school, I found out that the 12-year-old arrested for the murders was a seventh-grader who was in my reading class. He'd been serving a weeklong suspension from Seward for drawing gang signs in his notebook, and I'd visited his house the previous afternoon, just hours before the shootings, to take him some assignments and a book to read. I found it hard to believe he'd committed the crime, but according to the police, witnesses said he got out of a car near 50th and Paulina just after 6:30 PM, walked up to the two other boys, and fired several shots at them point-blank. He tried to run, but a squad car caught up to him a block or so away. Once handcuffed and in the car, police said, he confessed to the killings.

For the next few days my classroom was crawling with reporters, and the story was front-page news in the Tribune and at the top of nightly newscasts. The coverage was often sensationalized--a headline in the Salt Lake City Tribune read "Double Murder Halts Career of Chicago Gangster, 12." I could see zero-tolerance supporters using the case as evidence of why such harsh measures were necessary. They could argue, it's a good thing the accused student was suspended at the time of the shooting--just imagine what might have happened had he been in school that day.

But some people saw the shootings as evidence that inflexible disciplinary policies weren't working. One of them was Father Bruce Wellems, a priest at Holy Cross Church, which sits directly across 46th Street from Seward. He saw the killings as a wake-up call, a clear sign that something needed to be done, but he was looking for a better solution. "With something like zero tolerance, you're not dealing with the problem," he says. "You're not facing what the issues really are. It's like the Ten Commandments--'Thou shalt not, thou shalt not, thou shalt not.' OK, but what will you do? What's the other side of that?"

Born and raised in Albuquerque, Wellems had come to Chicago in the early 1980s to study for the priesthood. He'd landed at Holy Cross in 1991 with only a vague idea of what an inner-city ministry should be about and little commitment to the neighborhood's struggling youth. "I remember Tim McGovern, who was the park supervisor at Davis Square Park at the time, working with some of the gang kids, taking them on trips," Wellems says. "He'd always try to get me to come along, but I really didn't want to get into it. I was afraid. I kept trying to turn away from them, and Tim would keep turning me back again. One day we were at the park and I said, 'Tim, you know, these gang kids are really bad kids, they're really dangerous.' And I'll never forget what Tim told me. 'Bruce,' he said, 'these gang kids are your kids.' And he was right. They are our kids."

Wellems started working extensively with dropouts and gang members in the community, and he quickly discovered that most of them wanted one of two things--a decent job or the chance to continue their education. But finding schools that would accept the kids was hard, and keeping them enrolled was even harder--especially after zero tolerance became the rule.

When Eddie, a 14-year-old who'd recently dropped out, was shot in a drive-by, he asked Wellems to help him get back into school. Wellems got him enrolled in a Catholic high school, and Eddie sailed through ninth grade until the final month, when a teacher caught him scribbling gang graffiti on a desk. In short order, he was expelled and given no credit for the course work he'd completed. Wellems tried to intervene, but the principal wouldn't budge. "We don't tolerate gang activity," the principal said. "That's our rule, and we follow our rules."

Fine, Wellems thought, if other schools don't want to help these kids I'll start my own. He'd tossed around the idea of a community high school before but hadn't known how to get the right people behind it. When the city's attention turned to Back of the Yards in the wake of the two murders, he decided to try to use it to make something good come out of the tragedy. In late February, CPS CEO Paul Vallas visited Seward, and Wellems tagged along on the tour, championing the idea of an alternative school at every opportunity. By the end of the morning, Vallas had made a verbal commitment.

But even though he had Vallas's blessing, Wellems was frustrated by the tangled bureaucratic web at the Chicago Public Schools' central office. "I waited three weeks after turning in the initial proposal," he says. "I hadn't heard anything so I went over there. They hadn't even looked at it yet. If I hadn't gone in I think the thing would've just gotten buried. The first thing they asked me was, 'So where is the money for this going to come from?' I said, 'That's not my problem. All I know is that we're going to have a school.'"

Launching the high school became Wellems's mission. He decided to call it the Sister Irene Dugan Institute after a Religious of the Cenacle nun who'd worked with some of the neighborhood's gang members during the last year of her life. "Irene always used to tell me, 'Bruce, teach them to read,'" he says. "And that really made sense to me--the importance of learning to read. It does so many things. It raises their self-awareness, their awareness of what's going on around them, what they know, what they're able to know. And as they come to an appreciation of that, they calm down, they grow."

In the months that followed, Wellems formed a coalition of neighborhood educators, business leaders, community activists, and volunteers who worked together to map out details and build support. He visited alternative schools in Los Angeles to gather ideas about scheduling, curriculum, and encouraging parental involvement. Every Tuesday night he and a counselor, Sergio Grajeda, met with a group of 15 to 20 guys who were interested in signing up for the school--getting their input, keeping the momentum going.

As the weeks passed, Wellems cleared or kicked aside hurdle after hurdle, and by August 1998 Dugan Institute was up and running. Housed in a small brick building on the back lot of Holy Cross that had once been used as overflow classroom space for Seward, the school opened with 19 students, many of whom had police records or were gang members. Many had also been pushed out of other schools, often for minor offenses. "Society can say they won't tolerate this type of individual, and so can schools," Wellems says. "But what does that do? It makes the kid feel rejected. They're in a corner, and they give up. They're back out on the street affecting ten other kids in a negative way. How does a kid have room to screw up and grow when you have something like zero tolerance? How about having a kid atone for something? How is there any atonement if you just flat out reject a kid?"

The following June I watched as Dugan's first graduating class of six students walked across the front of Holy Cross's sanctuary to receive their diplomas. Four of them were the first in their families to graduate. The valedictorian, Federico Vega, was 21 years old, married with a baby boy, and working a full-time job in addition to his five hours of classes at Dugan. He'd been suspended from high school for fighting at the beginning of his senior year and had given up on returning until Dugan opened. "My life has changed a lot in this past year," he said in his commencement speech. "If I could turn back time I would change all of the negative choices I made in my life, and I would trade them with positive ones. But as you all know, that is impossible to do. I can't change the past, but I can change my future. I can learn from my mistakes and change my ways. I think all of us can."

Zero-tolerance policies continue to be widely used in school systems across the nation, but the latest figures available from the Chicago Public Schools show that last year both suspensions and expulsions dipped dramatically. This might be attributed to several factors--the board's SMART program, for example, gives some first-time drug offenders an alternative to expulsion. Yet it's hard not to wonder if there's been undercounting or some statistical sleight of hand. Last year as the board was applauding lower dropout rates, Catalyst reported that Kelly High School had posted one of the lowest rates in the city--but it also had student transfer rates of up to 44 percent.

If the new suspension and expulsion numbers are accurate, maybe things are changing for the better. But Jeremy LaHoud, a youth organizer with the Southwest Youth Collaborative, says there's no guarantee the improvement will continue. "The problem is that CPS has no systematic way of looking at their discipline policies," he says. "They should be saying, 'OK, the numbers are down, now how do we keep them down?' But they don't even seem to know why they dropped in the first place."

Yet Wellems emphasizes that it's not just school administrators who need to look more carefully at how to help kids succeed. "The ills of this society affect all of us, and it takes all of us to work together to do something about them," he says. "We can try to blindfold ourselves to it or try to turn away from the kids who need our help, but they're not going away. We turn away because we're afraid to know them. But once you make the effort to get to know them, what you find is a lot of life in these guys. I really believe some of our best leaders are going to come from these kids."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Ken Wilson photo/Robert Drea.

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