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Purple cocaine? It sounded far-fetched but not impossible to attorney Angela Coin when she got a call from the parents of one of several Chicago eighth graders who had been arrested and suspended for bringing bags of colored powder to school. Suspecting illegal drugs, school authorities had called the police. Legal machinery began to turn, and it wasn’t till several months later that the substance was determined to be Kool Aid, as the kids said all along. For Coin, it was another example of school disciplinary proceedings that seem to have gone wildly awry in the post-Columbine world of “zero tolerance” for student misbehavior. “We’re overwhelmed” with requests for help, says Coin, a staff lawyer at the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law. She estimates that the center has been getting 10 to 15 such calls a week since January, and that many punishments are unjustly harsh. According to figures that the center obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Chicago public schools started expulsion proceedings against 2,388 pupils during the 1999-2000 school year and suspended another 12,610. School officials say numbers this year will be higher because of a 5-month-old policy that treats threats by students more seriously than before. The Kool Aid kids were lucky. Coin’s clinic handled two cases, and she passed another on to pro bono attorneys at Baker & McKenzie. When the students and lawyers went to court, authorities proposed that to avoid charges they attend a Saturday drug program. The lawyers insisted that the state attorney’s office test the substance. It did, and the charges were dropped. Still, the students served suspensions before it was straightened out. Blondean Davis, the Chicago schools’ chief of schools and regions, stands by the school’s actions. “How would a school or principal determine that it is an illegal substance?” she asks. “It is the job of the police to make that determination. There’s no way for us to determine if something is cocaine or not cocaine. Our uniform policy requires that the police get involved.” Only a fraction of the accused students get legal assistance, children’s advocates say. And lawyers who represent pupils in trouble in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other cities say that zero tolerance is out of proportion to the actual level of violence in schools. “There’s a real discrepancy between what’s actually happening with violence in the schools and the facts,” says Kim Brooks, executive director of the Children’s Law Center in Covington, Ky. The federal government estimates that 87,298 children throughout the country were expelled in the 1998-99 year. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 1997-98, the latest year for which it has data, there were 35 “school-associated” homicides — that is, killings on school grounds, at school events or on the way to or from school. In the same year, all homicides of children totaled 2,752. Another source, the Justice Policy Institute, says that school-associated killings fell to 16 in 1998-99. Zero-tolerance started with the Gun-Free Schools Act. Threatening to withhold federal aid, it requires a one-year expulsion of a student who brings a firearm to school. State and local authorities have expanded the principle to mandatory expulsion for threats of violence, disobedience, defiance of authority, profanity, disruptive behavior and possession of drugs or alcohol. Lawyers say enforcement varies from school to school and student to student. At the same time, they say that rules are often applied without the use of common-sense discretion. “Whether you have a butter knife or an Uzi, it’s a weapon,” says Brooks. “Your consequences are the same.” QUESTIONABLE CASES Like most lawyers in this area, Brooks can rattle off a half-dozen examples over the last couple of years of what she regards as ridiculous discipline under zero-tolerance policies. A Massachusetts girl was expelled for bringing a plastic knife with her lunch. A Pennsylvania boy was suspended for bringing a toy ax as part of his Halloween fireman costume. The Chicago Public Schools’ Davis is familiar with such stories. “I know people are overreacting,” she says. “I’ve seen all kinds of things on television. But that’s not happening here.” She says that a heightened sense of tension and fear in the schools is forcing officials to take safety more seriously. “The recent violence in Columbine and Santee have resulted in bomb threats and all kinds of activities of that sort that haven’t resulted in the same kind of violent behavior, but have to be treated more seriously” than before, she says, referring to high school killings in Colorado and California. Many accused students in Chicago and elsewhere go through expulsion hearings without legal advice. “It makes a significant difference to have representation,” says Len Rieser, co-director of the Philadelphia’s Education Law Center. “But try to find an attorney.” In Chicago, Coin has been getting some help. Thomas Linguanti, a tax litigator at Baker & McKenzie, usually finds himself in federal court defending Fortune 1,000 companies. But he has handled several school cases and says the experience has been eye-opening both because of the behavior that is prompting the discipline and the process of representation. His first client was a 13-year-old girl facing expulsion and criminal charges after a fight. “It was the kind of fight any of us could have gotten into,” says Linguanti. While he agreed that some punishment was necessary for his client, particularly because a teacher who tried to break up the fight got shoved against a locker, he didn’t think the girl should lose her right to a public education. He got her probation on the criminal charges, but she was expelled. She was sent to an alternative school. She hated it and joined Cook County’s 19,000 high school dropouts that year. Twenty-six states require alternative education for students suspended or expelled, but there’s little information on the quality of such schools. “They can be absolutely wonderful, or they can just be warehousing kids,” says Brooks. Davis says there are a variety of alternative schools and that school officials try to refer a child to the proper one. Still, she notes, “Once a child is expelled, our legal responsibility is at an end.” In another case that Coin referred to Linguanti, a 6-year-old was arrested and suspended after one classmate told another that the suspected child was going to “blow her head off.” The boy was taken to the police station, where his parents told the police that there were no guns in their house and that the boy wasn’t even allowed to play with toy guns. A search of the house found no gun; charges were dropped. But the boy was suspended from school for 10 days for making the statement, which he denies doing. “From a litigator’s perspective, it’s hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay,” complains Linguanti. Linguanti says he has been constantly frustrated by the proceedings. They are held before an administrative hearing officer who works for the school district. The case against the pupil is presented by a district lawyer. Students’ lawyers, when they have them, don’t have the right to subpoena witnesses or to examine in advance the documents that the schools use in a case. “We were stunned by our inability to do the kinds of things that we thought anybody should be able to do if they were going to have a hearing about their future,” he says. Davis maintains that the proceedings are fair. She says children who request attorneys are provided with school district lawyers. Efforts are made to provide a lawyer from a different division than the one prosecuting the case, she says. Even if kids rely just on their parents, she says, “We’ve put in many checks and balances.” Davis says that while the referral rate for expulsion was high in 1999-2000, only 542 children were actually expelled. There were 477 “no-expulsions.” The rest were diverted to a program in lieu of punishment, or their charges haven’t been decided. Given that enrollment in the district is 435,000, she says, “if we have over 2,400 referrals, I certainly don’t think that’s excessive.” Although the police dropped charges against the Kool Aid pupils and the allegedly threatening 6-year-old, the kids still have suspensions on their school records and a drug and weapons arrest on their juvenile records. The eighth-grader helped by Coin in the Kool Aid case had hoped to transfer to a private prep school, says Jasmine Abdul-khalik, the Baker & McKenzie associate who was his attorney. Now his parents fear he won’t be accepted. Both boys, who are black, have what’s known in police parlance as a station adjustment — information about their arrest in police computers. “This is the inner city,” says Abdul-khalik. “It’s not unusual for a bunch of kids to be hanging out. If police officers stop and investigate what’s going on, they will see this on the record.” In many cities, students are disciplined for behavior outside school. The Chicago system is considering a proposal that would automatically transfer any pupil held in juvenile detention for nonschool conduct to an alternative school. Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Chicago, says that would punish some innocent students. “Oftentimes, kids are held in a juvenile detention center before being brought to trial,” he says. Pushing them to alternative schools would punish them even if the “charges are dismissed or if they are acquitted.” In addition, school disciplinary hearings are sometimes used to prosecute juveniles in court, says Andrew Bridge, executive director of the Alliance for Children in Los Angeles, which represented more than 5,000 children last year. At a school hearing, he says, “A child may stand up and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ That apology is made in a context in which there is not a constitutional setting. Then it is imported in a criminal proceeding as an admission to the crimes.” CONSTITUTIONAL ISSUES Many lawyers agree that zero tolerance is acceptable for kids who bring guns to school. But advocates argue that some policies are constitutionally suspect. A joint study last year by Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project and the Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project, a nonprofit civil rights law organization, said that federal courts “provide an incomplete patchwork of legal protections for children against the harsh school disciplinary measures.” But the report identified three areas in which children could look for relief: protections against discrimination on the basis of color or national origin, rights of students with disabilities, and the due process rights applicable to all students. Nationally the ACLU, Yohnka says, is also troubled that students are being punished for putting something on a Web site that school officials find disagreeable. It is also concerned about the school’s reaction to jokes or pranks determined to be threats. “Even when they’re determined not to be threats, students are suspended,” he says. Many child advocates say they’re pessimistic about tackling zero-tolerance enforcement through litigation. Coin says her office is looking for a good case. “We try to avoid suing people,” she says. “But do we keep taking the 10 to 15 phone calls a week or do we do something that’s across-the-board reform advocacy?” She says she recently got a call about a student who was expelled for smelling like marijuana. She got another about a boy expelled for having a list of names in his backpack that turned up in a fruitless search for a gun, after a tip. Authorities said it could have been a “hit list” and accused him of misconduct related to threats, intimidation or coercion, Coin says. The mother says the names were those of people he planned to invite to his 14th birthday party, Coin says. Davis, the school official, referring generally to several cases arising from lists, says, “These were not just lists of names. They were preceded by a threat.”

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