Listen to article

Viktoria King at home in Chocowinity, NC on March 2, 2010. King, a cheerleader with good grades who was suspended for a semester for fighting, eventually paid for a home tutor. Photo :The New York Times

As school let out one day in January 2008, students from rival towns faced off. Two girls flailed away for several seconds and clusters of boys pommelled each other until teachers pulled them apart.

The fistfights at Southside High School involved no weapons and no serious injuries, and in some ways seemed as old-fashioned as the country roads here in eastern North Carolina. But the punishment was strictly up-to-date: Sheriffs' deputies handcuffed and briefly arrested a dozen students. The school suspended seven of them for a short period and six others from the melee, including the two girls, for the entire semester.

As extra punishment, the girls were told they could not attend Beaufort County's alternative school for troubled students and were denied aid to study at home.

Their punishment was typical of the get-tough, 'zero tolerance' discipline policies that swept America over the last two decades, resulting in an increase in suspensions that are disproportionate among black students. School officials here say they acted to preserve a 'safe and orderly environment.' But whether banishing children from schools really makes them safer or serves the community well is increasingly questioned by social scientists and educators. And now the punishment is before the courts in what has become a stark legal test of the approach. Lawyers for the girls – who are black – say that denying them a semester's schooling was an unjustified violation of their constitutional right to an education.

The case will be argued on Monday in the North Carolina Supreme Court and has drawn the attention of civil rights, legal aid and education groups around the country.

Racial imbalance?
At issue is the routine use of suspensions not just for weapons or drugs but also for profanity, defiant behaviour, pushing matches and other acts that used to be handled with a visit to the principal's office or detention. Such lesser violations now account for most of the 3.3 million annual suspensions of public school students. That total includes a sharp racial imbalance: poor black students are suspended at three times the rate of whites, a disparity not fully explained by differences in income or behaviour.

On March 8, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan lamented 'schools that seem to suspend and discipline only young African-American boys' as he pledged stronger efforts to ensure racial equality in schooling.

A growing body of research, scholars say, suggests that heavy use of suspensions does less to pacify schools than to push already troubled students toward academic failure and dropping out – and sometimes into what critics have called the 'school-to-prison pipeline.' A rising number of districts are already reversing course and trying new approaches, including behavioural counselling and mediation, to reduce conflict and create safer, quieter schools while ejecting only the worst offenders.

'These students were treated like criminals and abandoned by the school system for doing something that students have done forever – fighting in the schoolyard,' said Erwin Byrd, a lawyer with Legal Aid of North Carolina, which brought the suit with lawyers from the Duke University School of Law. The school district says it must retain discretion over punishments.

Some 15 percent of the nation's black students in grades K-12 are suspended at least briefly each year, compared with 4.8 percent of white students, according to federal data from 2006, the latest available.

Expulsions are meted out to one in 200 black students versus one in 1,000 white students.

Second thoughts
Zero tolerance and the quick resort to suspensions have been politically popular, but education leaders are having second thoughts. 'If our primary obligation is to educate kids, then to punish them by excluding them doesn't make sense,' said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said strict punishment should not be the main tool for order. 'Lots of schools don't provide the panoply of services we think are important – prevention and intervention strategies and alternative placements for disruptive students,' Weingarten said in an interview.

Studies have not found that zero tolerance has created safer schools or better learning environments, said Russell Skiba, professor of educational psychology at Indiana University. He was part of a 2006 task force of the American Psychological Association that called for more graduated punishments and programs attuned to adolescence.

Over the last several years, many cities including Denver, Baltimore and Cleveland have moved away from zero tolerance, said Jim Freeman, a lawyer with the Advancement Project, a civil rights group in Washington.

Among the methods shown to help, Freeman said, are anti-bullying programs, positive-behaviour feedback and training of students and teachers in conflict resolution.

The Baltimore schools, with aid from the Open Society Institute, amended the discipline code and adopted in-school mentoring of disruptive students. Suspensions in 2008-9 were down 39 percent from two years before.

With similar strategies, including peer mediation, violent incidents in Cleveland schools fell by one-fifth in each of the last two years.

Here in Beaufort County, officials will not explain exactly why the two suspended girls, Viktoria King and Jessica Hardy, both sophomores then, were denied access to the alternative school. Robert Belcher, chairman of the school board, said in an interview that the principal had placed them among the 'most egregious' violators and that he would not second-guess that judgment.

© 2010 New York Times News Service