Courts & Crime

Texas law takes aim at schools' 'zero tolerance' policies

FORT WORTH — A high school student is suspended for four days when school officials find a wooden bat in his vehicle.

An honors student forgets to remove a kitchen knife from his car and is sent to an alternative-placement center for students with disciplinary problems.

Under strict "zero tolerance" discipline policies in some school districts, students can get severe punishment for weapons violations, assaults and drug offenses no matter what the circumstances were. In a fight, for example, it doesn’t matter who threw the first punch or whether it is the student’s first trip to the principal’s office.

Acting on concerns that the rules have been applied too rigidly in some school districts, state legislators passed a bill this session essentially mandating that administrators use common sense when doling out punishment.

Under House Bill 171, school districts must take into account extenuating circumstances such as "intent or lack of intent" and students’ disciplinary history before suspending or expelling them or placing them in an alternative education program.

The law change also requires schools to notify a parent right away when a child is punished.

"School districts, many of them, aren’t using common sense. There have been some real horror stories," said Rep. Dora Olivo, D-Missouri City, who authored the legislation. "It is only fair to the student to listen to their side before we take drastic action. This is not about making our schools unsafe."

Fred Hink, executive director of Texas Zero Tolerance, a Houston-area parent group that supports overhauling Texas education disciplinary policies, said that the new mandate is a "good first step" but that it is unclear whether it will be effective in reducing improper student punishments.

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