Kennewick School District's zero-tolerance policy phase-out plan eyed

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldMay 16, 2014 

Kennewick principals, parents and students aren't the only ones paying attention to the Kennewick School Board's recent decision to phase out a zero-tolerance approach to student discipline.

Members of the Washington State Board of Education and the Seattle-based League of Education Voters have asked to meet with the board about the change.

Blogs and other education-focused media also have been sharing coverage of the decision across the Internet.

"It's a good time as a state to be thoughtful about how we provide students the discipline they need and deserve, and yet do it in a way that fosters, and doesn't impede, their academic and personal growth," said Ben Rarick, executive director for the state board. "We're pleased Kennewick is stepping out as a leader in this discussion."

The attention is a surprise for the district, Superintendent Dave Bond said, but makes sense given the trends and interest in how students are disciplined.

"There's been a building up of concern regarding zero-tolerance," he told the Herald.

Schools started implementing zero-tolerance policies in the late '80s and they became prevalent in the mid-'90s.

They were intended to discourage bad behavior and were applied to fighting and bullying punishments but also those concerning drugs and weapons on school grounds.

But increasingly, educators and parents have criticized the approach for unfairly punishing students who were not responsible for starting a fight.

Bond added that egregious examples of zero-tolerance incidents, such as a student suspended for having a water gun in a backpack, often draw negative feedback.

The Kennewick board voted in early April to strip the zero-tolerance approach out of policies concerning fights and other student altercations.

The altered discipline policies won't stop principals from punishing everyone involved in a fight, but gives them more options.

Final punishments may be more flexible, and district officials are looking at ways to ensure students found innocent of wrongdoing won't have those incidents on their permanent record.

A zero-tolerance approach is potentially a source of bigger problems, said Rarick and MaryBeth Lambert, spokeswoman for the League of Education Voters.

Data shows minority student, including African-Americans and Hispanics but also special needs students, are particularly affected by such policies, which often remove students from school for weeks or months at a time.

A federal study found some students are more likely to be punished based on economic and social status or ethnicity.

Lambert said students who face more suspensions and expulsions are more likely to drop out. That makes those students less likely to graduate high school and more likely to end up in jail or prison.

"Our stance is that students can't learn if they aren't in school," she said.

The league and state board already worked to get a law passed in 2013 limiting long-term and emergency expulsions and requiring better recording of student discipline and how it breaks down among gender, race and other demographics.

But more needs to be done and Kennewick is the first district in the state the league knows actively removed zero tolerance from its policies.

"That's why we got so excited," Lambert said.

While the accolades from those in education and education reform are nice, they aren't the only thing catching the board's interest.

Kennewick board member Ben Messinger said he was bombarded by numerous comments on social media thanking him and the board for its decision in the weeks after the vote.

"I don't think it's a small thing to think we made the right move," he said at a recent board meeting.

w Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com

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