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Case for Common Sense

A theory much in vogue holds that a broken window that stays unrepaired signals apathy. The house is vandalized, spray-painted with graffiti, taken over by the homeless or by gangs.

A variation on that theory posits that when a youngster is allowed to commit minor infractions and get away unpunished, the floodgates can open. There’s a progression from burglary to assault, from teenagers’ drinking alcohol to their using drugs like marijuana or cocaine.

Schools across the country have signaled their willingness to get tough by enacting “zero tolerance” codes of conduct. Students caught with drugs, including alcohol, or weapons, are expelled.

In Orange County, the tough measures have led to an increase in the number of students forced to leave their high schools and go elsewhere in a district, sometimes to a continuation high school, sometimes to a county-run school.

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Schools can’t be substitute parents, but they do need to provide a place where students can learn with as few distractions as possible. The schools are right to signal that they will not tolerate the intrusion of drugs and weapons on campus, nor will they stand by idly while youngsters lose their way in school.

But a one-size-fits-all measure implied in zero tolerance occasionally does not measure up. Common sense often is a needed addition.

A year ago Newport Beach police stopped a car driven by Ryan Huntsman, a senior at Corona del Mar High School. The school day was over, and Huntsman said he was running errands for his mother. Police reported finding a pipe and marijuana residue in the car, but not enough to issue a citation.

However, when the incident was reported to the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, officials there transferred him to another school three months before graduation. Huntsman challenged the transfer in court, with his lawyer arguing he had not received a hearing, denying him due process. A judge agreed and ordered him reinstated. The school district appealed, but a court dismissed the appeal on the grounds that since Huntsman had graduated, the issue was moot.

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It seems a stretch to argue that a school’s reach extends to a student’s off-campus behavior when it has no relation to school and does not result in an arrest, let alone a conviction.

It’s different when students go off campus over the lunch hour and drink alcohol or smoke marijuana. The school day isn’t over; the students will be coming back after a short break. Districts are justified in enforcing zero-tolerance policies at lunch, on campus or off. That was Tustin Unified’s argument in a case in which students allegedly smoked marijuana, and a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the district, letting it transfer the students.

School administrators argue correctly that campuses must be kept free of weapons and drugs. Schools must be proactive in providing a good and safe environment for learning. But keeping a youngster on track through reasonably applied policy is also possible. For example, a Texas girl should not have been suspended for carrying Advil, which her school district ruled was a drug.

As schools in Orange County try to make their campuses as safe as possible, the strain is being shifted to the facilities that take students who are transferred for breaking the rules.

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Continuation schools and detention centers saw their enrollment jump 31% from September 1996 to September 1997. County figures showed the student tally went from 642 to 843.

Officials said most of the increase was due to expulsions. The continuation schools provide a valuable service. They give students a second chance, an opportunity to turn around at least their academic lives, sometimes their whole approach to life. They also provide students with a chance to pursue their education in smaller classes, which means more individual attention.

Orange County officials should keep looking for possible sites for new continuation schools, since many school administrators believe the number of students being expelled or transferred will keep rising along with the county’s population.

Weeding out teenagers who interfere with their fellow students’ attempts to get an education unfortunately is one of a school’s tasks. But they should not be expected to monitor what students do off campus on weekends or at night, so long as bad behavior does not carry over to the classroom. That’s the job of parents, who must reinforce the importance of making responsible personal choices even as they support the need for an education.

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