Columbine-era zero tolerance rules: Bill to end them faces challenges

Last September, we told you about a movement to end school zero-tolerance policies enacted after the 1999 Columbine massacre. These efforts led to Senate Bill 46, which passed its first committee test last week. But its narrow margin of victory leaves sponsoring Senator Evie Hudak worried that some legislators see it as a partisan issue.

"The vote was 3-2, with two people absent," Hudak says. "But it was a party line vote, which was very surprising. The bill to create the task force that created this bill was a bipartisan bill, and this bill is bipartisan, too. So I'm a little concerned that the two Republicans on the Senate education committee decided that there were concerns with it."

Why is the legislation needed?

"We've had post-Columbine zero-tolerance policies in place for a decade," Hudak notes, "and during that time, school districts have changed their expulsion polices, because they had mandates for expulsion, and there were situations where students had to be expelled for reasons that really weren't violent. Think of the kid who picked up a toy gun on the street and was playing with it on the playground, or the kid whose mother left a paring knife in her lunchbox. And the length of expulsion was up in the air depending on the situation. There were some school districts that shortened their expulsion period to a couple of days or a week because of that -- and so it really had become a suspension. They had to play games with the law in order to handle situations appropriately for kids."

In the end, Hudak continues, "the expulsion mandate for everything other than the one that's federally required, which is if a student possesses a firearm, was eliminated. We left everything else up to the discretion of the school district. And we also looked at the rules pertaining to habitually disruptive students. The rules said if a student was disruptive three times, they had to be suspended or expelled. And in the task force, I asked, 'Why is three the magic number?' Obviously, it depends on the circumstances. We don't want to force schools to suspend students when maybe they shouldn't."

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Record-keeping adjustments have been tweaked in the bill as well. "Districts have to report the number of students who have been referred to law enforcement, but there's been a lot of confusion over that," she points out. "Did it mean a school resource officer talked to a kid? Or were they arrested? So we've defined it, so that when the districts report the discipline information online, which is part of our school accountability requirement, the data is going to be accurate."

The goal is to instill the process with "common sense, and hopefully make it more fair, so that the punishment fits the crime -- if it actually is a crime," she continues. "That's another thing: We differentiate between misbehavior and a crime, so that we're not having students issued tickets in school for things that aren't really criminal. We'll be able to see if they've been arrested, if the DA decided to prosecute, or if it really didn't rise to that level."

During the task-force process, Hudak says, "community groups told us they believe there's a disproportionate number of minority students being suspended or expelled. Now, we're not really sure that's happening. The data is really hard to track. So there's a whole data provision in the bill, so we can really find out who's being suspended or expelled, and for what."

To Hudak, these elements are important. But they raised red flags for Senator Keith King, a task-force member who voted against the measure at the committee level. [Note: The original version of this post misidentified Keith King as Senator Steve King. Our apologies for the error.] "He said all he wanted to do was eliminate the mandatory expulsions, and he doesn't think we need the data reporting," Hudak allows. "But many people on the task force felt very strongly that we need the data. The chiefs of police and sheriffs testified in favor of the bill partly because they'd like to see data collected, and so does the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which has been looking at the issues of truancy and expulsion and the connection between school discipline and the criminal justice system."

The next stop for the measure is the appropriations committee, which typically meets on Friday mornings. After that, it'll head to the Senate floor, at which time Hudak hopes folks from both major parties will look at it objectively.

"It's not partisan," she emphasizes. "We've had huge support for doing a bill like this, but it just seems like we got tangled up in the weeds."

Read the bill below.

Senate Bill 12 46

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More from our Education archive: "Zero tolerance policies enacted after Columbine massacre need to go away, panelist says."

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