- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

Juvenile crime rates have held steady since the 1970s, but school suspensions have doubled over the same time period, according to a new report that questions the need for "zero tolerance" policies in schools.

The increase in the number of suspensions seemed to have little to do with serious school crime, said Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which released the report through its research division, the Justice Policy Institute. Today's juvenile homicide rate, he said, is the lowest since 1966.

"Today's high school seniors are no more likely than their parents were to be assaulted, injured, threatened or robbed in high school," said Mr. Schiraldi, a criminologist who has headed the CJCJ since 1985. "We need to question why a well-behaved generation is being so severely punished by being denied access to education."

Rather, he said, the concern over school violence has been fanned by intense media coverage of random incidents like the Columbine High School massacre and a 24-7 news cycle.

"As media coverage of juvenile crime goes up, the public is going to think it's happening more even though it is not," said Mr. Schiraldi, who cites a 68 percent drop in the U.S. juvenile homicide rate from 1993 to 1999.

The CJCJ, located in Washington, is a private, nonprofit group devoted to reduction of "society's reliance on the use of incarceration as a solution to social problems" through awareness and education programs.

In a recent policy brief, the Justice Policy Institute cited research from the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research for the Justice Department. That data showed that 95 percent of students consistently reported never having been threatened with a weapon at school, and also found that the proportion of students who had reported no incidents of serious violence had remained stable over the last two decades.

Close to 85 percent of high school seniors in 1976 and in 1998 said they were not injured or threatened with a weapon and were not victims of assault or theft at schools, the JPI said. However, data from the U.S. Department of Education showed that 1.7 million students were suspended from school in 1974, compared with 3.2 million in 1998.

Zero-tolerance policies were used by a few school districts in the late 1980s and gained in popularity in the early 1990s as a way to guard against student drug and alcohol possession. Later, rules were broadened to include tobacco use, weapons and destructive behavior.

In 1994, President Clinton signed into law the Gun-Free Schools Act, which mandated that school districts that received federal funds must expel students who brought guns to school.

Since then, however, school administrators have come under fire for using poor judgment in applying zero-tolerance sanctions, suspending students for minor infractions that include playing cops and robbers on the playground.

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