Thursday, March 18, 2010

Senate Approves Sen. Jones’ Zero Tolerance Discipline Bill

The Georgia State Senate today unanimously voted in favor of Sen. Emanuel Jones’ (D-Decatur) legislation to limit the abuse of zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools.

“This is about putting the decisions back in the hands of the educators,” said Jones. “Teachers and principles should have the flexibility to levy a punishment that appropriately fits the student. The one-size fits all approach to discipline that has pervaded our schools serves only to ensnare kids into a pipeline to prison.”

Hailed as common-sense legislation, Senate Bill 299 implements provisions aimed at educators, students and juvenile courts to foster a learning environment that prioritizes education over punishment. Zero-tolerance policies automatically impose harsh punishments without consideration of the circumstances. Under these policies, students have been expelled for bringing nail clippers or scissors to school.

Under Jones’ legislation, teachers and principals are encouraged to use their discretion to report a student under the zero tolerance policy, whereas current law requires them to report every incident. The bill also changes the juvenile criminal code to treat a first offense as a delinquent act, rather than a designated felony act. This gives kids a second chance if they commit a minor infraction without the intent to harm anyone. Judges are also prohibited from establishing a standing court order that allows them to send a student directly to jail before receiving a hearing. This will prevent students from being sent to prison for committing a minor infraction that does not call for such harsh punishment.

Over the years, zero tolerance policies have contributed to rising suspension and expulsion rates. The number of children suspended from school has risen from 1.7 million in 1974 to 3.1 million in 2000. Many of these kids are expelled for committing only a minor infraction; kids who have no previous history of misconduct. Findings also indicate that there is great racial disparity in the students who are expelled. In 2000, African-American students represented only 17 percent of public school enrollment nationwide, but accounted for 34 percent of suspensions.

Jones also noted that Georgia spent an average of over $74,000 to house just one youth in a detention center in 2008. With a 1,320 bed capacity, this cost the state almost $98 million. “Creating a pathway from school to jail simply railroads these kids into a life of crime. This is a disservice to our children, but also to our state. Georgia taxpayers are financing the cost of these detention centers, and in such tough economic times this is not something for which citizens, the state or our children can afford to pay the price.”

Since its introduction, the bill has received support from a wide range of stakeholders, including the Georgia Association of Educators; the Georgia Association of School Superintendents; Judge Steven Teske, immediate past president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges; and the Georgia State Conference NAACP, among others.

The bill now moves the House of Representatives for consideration. 
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