San Diego "Zero tolerance" policies in schools can be unfair, some lawyers argue, because a student found with aspirin in his pocket can get suspended as quickly as one with marijuana.
Leaders of the 400,000-member American Bar Assn. probably will come out against such rules at the close of their winter meeting, even though some schools say lawyers were a big part of the reason for adopting zero tolerance policies.
"The ABA is an organization that stands for fairness and justice, and many of the zero tolerance policies around the country have been unfair and unjust to children," said Robert Schwartz, director of the Juvenile Law Center, a public interest group in Philadelphia.
"The problem is that children aren't treated as individuals, but are treated the same way no matter what they've done or who they are," said Schwartz, a lawyer who helped draft the recommended policy.
Opponents of the policies at the ABA and in some civil liberties groups point to examples they say show zero tolerance has run amok: The Pittsburgh kindergartner disciplined in 1999 because his Halloween firefighter costume included a plastic ax, and the Cobb County, Ga., sixth-grader suspended last year because the 10-inch key chain on her Tweety bird wallet is considered a weapon.
School districts say parents often demand the policies and most parents like them unless their own child is targeted.
Tony Arasi, assistant superintendent in Cobb County in suburban Atlanta, said zero tolerance works well, although he acknowledged cases like the Tweety wallet "can look ugly."
"We say it treats all students the same based on what they did, not who they are," Arasi said.
The policies came about partly because schools faced lawsuits charging that principals disciplined unequally based on race or other factors, Arasi said. Having a universal policy on paper protects schools from lawsuits by eliminating a lot of the arbitrary nature of school discipline, he said.
"Those people saying zero tolerance leads to unfairness in serious discipline may want to go back 10 or 15 years to before most districts had zero tolerance,"' Arasi said. "They were saying there was unfairness then. It's come full circle."
Once in place, the policies also help protect against lawsuits from parents charging the school did not do enough to keep students safe, or from complaints that individual punishments did not fit the offense.