The Knox County Board of Education in Knoxville has been ordered to revise its "zero tolerance" disciplinary policies as part of a lawsuit filed by the parents of two students expelled for having prescription sleeping pills on school premises. The two were among 170 students expelled from Knox County schools last school year for "zero tolerance" offenses, which call for mandatory one-year expulsions for physical attacks on teachers, weapons possession or drug possession.
The school district made no provision for alternative education programs for the students it expelled, leaving them in educational limbo. The parents of the two students sued the school board, arguing that the "zero tolerance" expulsions violated the girls' rights to a public education under the US and Tennessee constitutions. In March 2001, Knox County Chancery Court Judge Sharon Bell agreed and ordered the school district to revise its policy to agree with state law and "constitutional guarantees afforded the plaintiffs."
The board revised its policy the following month by adding a clause saying that expelled students would be considered for placement in alternative schools. But lawyers for the two students asked the judge to rule that the board had violated the March 2001 order because although the board had indeed reviewed the cases of 141 students thrown out for "zero tolerance" violations between April 2001 and April 2002, it had not actually placed any of them in alternative schools.
The judge agreed, ruling on July 8 that the school board must again revise its "zero tolerance" policies. According to the Knoxville News-Sentinel, at a board meeting last week, the board proposed amending the policy to explicitly state that expelled students will be considered for alternative schooling. The proposed new policy would also order the school superintendent to consider individual factors, such as seriousness of the offense, prior disciplinary record, grades, and attendance, when deciding "zero tolerance" cases.
The school board is starting to have second thoughts. Board Chairman Jim McClain told the News-Sentinel he wondered if the state's "zero tolerance" policy, on which the district's policy was modeled, can survive. "I think zero tolerance is doomed eventually," he said.