One strike and you're out of school

Youthful suicides, financial ruin, families torn apart for minor infractions: How post-Columbine hysteria is wrecking lives.

Published February 2, 2004 10:34PM (EST)

In November 1996, Dustin Seal, then a high school senior, was expelled after authorities at his Knoxville, Tenn., high school found a 3-inch knife in his car. Even though the knife wasn't Dustin's, and even though the friend who'd left the knife in Dustin's car claimed responsibility for it, the administration didn't budge: Under the school's "zero tolerance" policy, every student found with a weapon on campus had to be expelled.

Dustin became depressed and withdrawn after his expulsion, says his father, Dennis, a 58-year-old retired commercial contractor. "He would ask me constantly: When are they going to let me back in school with my friends? How can they take everything away from me when I've done nothing wrong?"

The Seals sued the school district and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, winning at every step. But by the time the court sent the case back to the local level for Dustin to claim damages, he was too exhausted to continue fighting. He settled for $30,000 in December of 2001.

Six months later, Dustin spent a June day with his father shooting pool. He went home that night and repeatedly left messages on Dennis' answering machine while Dennis, sick in bed, slept in the next room: "It doesn't look like we're going to the bike show tomorrow, Dad, but I love you." "Dad -- goodbye."

Then he drew a bath, got in the bathtub, stuck a pistol under his chin and pulled the trigger. He was 22 years old.

Almost two years after his son's suicide, Dennis Seal is suing the Knox County school board for wrongful death, claiming that Dustin's suicide was a direct result of his expulsion. "It broke his spirit and he never got over it," says Seal. School district spokesman Russ Oaks wouldn't comment on Seal's case, but, he says, "Zero tolerance has helped to ensure a safer school environment." The case goes to trial this October.

Clearing his son's name has consumed Dennis Seal's life. "That's all I've done for two years," he says. He's spent well over $30,000 in legal fees, and is planning to try the case himself, after unsatisfactory experiences with lawyers spurred him to study for a law degree online through a local community college. He says he never received a letter of condolence from the school district.

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Dennis Seal's story is perhaps the most harrowing example of a zero tolerance policy gone awry -- but it's not the only one. A growing number of parents across the country are struggling to deal with their children's expulsions, for what they claim are minor infractions blown out of proportion. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a zero tolerance policy is a "school or district policy that mandates predetermined consequences or punishments for specific offenses" -- which has all too often come to mean that whether the drug is cocaine or cold medicine, whether the weapon is a butter knife or a shotgun, the penalty will be the same. Like the mandatory sentencing laws of the early '90s, which have overcrowded prisons with felons convicted of relatively low-level crimes forced to serve long sentences, zero tolerance is a one-size-fits-all policy, critics say -- and treating every offense the same, regardless of the context, just doesn't work.

School officials across the country say that after school shootings at Paducah and Jonesboro, Springfield and Columbine, they can't afford to take chances. And just as no one wants to repeal crime laws for fear of seeming soft on crime, school districts are reluctant to change zero tolerance policies for fear of sending the message that discipline in schools is no longer a priority. About 79 percent of public schools have zero tolerance policies for violence and tobacco and 94 percent for firearms, reports NCES.

News stories of children expelled under zero tolerance abound (the girl who was kicked out of school for writing a violent story in her diary; the boy expelled for lending his asthma inhaler to his asthmatic girlfriend), but what goes unreported is the private suffering endured by families of accused kids: the financial devastation from legal costs and private school tuition; the social isolation, as many must dedicate their time to defending their child; the shame of being seen by the community as a "bad" parent. Worst of all is the emotional toll on the children, who are left with few educational alternatives and deep feelings of anger and betrayal toward a system they've been raised to trust.

Parents affected by zero tolerance are networking through the Web, thanks to sites like and e-mail groups like Parents Against Zero Tolerance. Some, like Dennis Seal, have been inspired to take political action -- he's running for a school board seat in November -- but most depend on the other parents they meet via the Web for legal advice and, especially, emotional support.

"I feel really close to a number of [the parents]," says Mary LeBlanc, a 51-year-old Louisiana receptionist whose 17-year-old son Adam was expelled, arrested, chained to the wall of a police station by his ankles and thrown in jail after his younger brother's school bus driver found a drawing in a sketch pad that depicted Adam and his friends attacking the high school with ICBM missiles. "They know exactly where you're coming from and they're very encouraging. It's very difficult to find someone in this community who can sympathize and understand. You find the most comfort from parents who've been through similar things. If I didn't have that, I would've been lost."

The Gun-Free Schools Act, passed by President Clinton in 1994, mandates a one-year expulsion for any student found with drugs or weapons on campus. The law was designed to protect students from serious dangers, but school boards -- the interpreters of the law, since public schools are run at the local level -- began to tighten their policies after the mid-'90s spate of school shootings, ushering in the era of zero tolerance. Immediately, suspension and expulsion rates zoomed nationwide. According to the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, the total number of suspensions and expulsions for both elementary and secondary schools rose from 1,977,862 in 1990 to 3,150,626 in 2000.

The continuing rapid rise of these numbers prove that zero tolerance doesn't really work, says Russell Skiba, an associate professor in educational psychology at Indiana University and the director of the Safe and Responsive Schools Project, who has just completed two major studies on zero tolerance. "Schools will say, 'We need these policies to keep these schools safe, and if we make any exceptions it'll reduce safety.' The important piece is whether it really is making a contribution to our schools. The best data says it isn't."

Even those charged with carrying out the policies don't necessarily agree with them. "I dislike lumping every single case into one category," says Curt Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. ("Resource officer" is the official term for school police officers.) "We know the difference between a kid who has a knife because he's a fisherman and a kid who's going to use the knife to stab his classmates. But when you institute a zero tolerance policy, you have no choice: You become more of a robot in your police work."

So why is expulsion no longer a last resort, and how could anyone suspend a child for something as innocuous as bringing Midol to school? "Parents want to be assured that their children will be safe," says Bill Modzeleski, associate deputy undersecretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education. "I assume that, yes, with 52 million kids and 15,000 school districts there probably are some policies that some individuals call harsh. But there are other parents who say, 'They're not harsh, because those are the same policies that are protecting my son and daughter.'"

School districts and zero tolerance proponents like Modzeleski say that common sense must prevail -- that school boards do take extenuating circumstances into account at expulsion hearings and that all children are offered due process. But for parents trying to keep their children in school, common sense seems like the last thing on the minds of the administrators.

Graduate student Howard Hastings, 52, whose 14-year-old son Karel was expelled in 2000 for giving a joint to another child at his Fairfax County, Va., middle school, says that during his son's expulsion hearing, an earlier 10-day absence was seen as suspicious and added to the school's proof of Karel's guilt. It didn't matter that the absence was due to a wrestling injury that left Karel -- a local wrestling star -- unable to walk for over a week.

Hastings was furious with Karel for his marijuana experimentation, he says, and planned to punish him. He immediately met with the school administration and told Karel to be as honest as possible about the joint he'd given his friend, assuming that if they "played by their rules and did everything the school required," Karel might be readmitted. But the administration was determined to expel Karel, says Hastings, and by the time the school's discipline measures added up -- mandating that Karel attend multiple Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and group therapy every week on top of expulsion -- Hastings felt that the school's punishment was more than enough. In fact, he now wishes that he hadn't pushed Karel to be completely honest with the school.

"If we had to do it all over again, I might've said, 'Just keep silent,'" says Hastings. "We trusted [the school]. We're used to going in and talking to a teacher about how our kid is doing. But they weren't interested in him at all."

Fairfax County School District coordinator of community relations Paul Regnier notes that Karel pled guilty in court to possession of a controlled substance, and that "the school district felt there was evidence of distribution" -- which factored into its decision to expel.

Mary LeBlanc, the Louisiana mother whose 17-year-old son Adam was arrested for a drawing, says that when the school found a box cutter on her son, they immediately interpreted it as proof of Adam's dangerous nature -- even though she repeatedly told the administration that he needed it at his long-term after-school job at a family-owned grocery store. "They weren't having any part of that," she says. "My son was obviously planning something."

Ascension Parish assistant superintendent Donald Sogny, who wouldn't comment specifically on Adam's case, says that the media only gets half the story. "I'm not going to air a child's dirty laundry," he says. "We can tell you a lot more that might convince you that maybe it wasn't a small thing." He also notes that not every child recommended for expulsion ends up expelled: In fact, two cases in his district last month were "modified significantly," he says.

"Zero tolerance looks good on paper," says Diane Rohman, 38, whose son was expelled from high school in the same district where she works as a middle school art teacher in Stafford County, Va. Rohman estimates that her middle school has already expelled about three students this year -- one for carrying over-the-counter cold medicine. "It makes it look like we're doing something to make the schools safe. But I don't think anyone [in the community] is really aware of what it is."

Rohman's 17-year-old son, Anthony, her only child, was expelled on the first day of his senior year in high school last September after administrators found a marijuana seed in the back seat of his car. Rohman claims the seed came from a boy who was riding in the back seat of the car. "They call it due process, but I have never walked into a situation where I felt that nothing I said would've mattered," says Rohman of her son's expulsion hearing. "I knew it was hopeless -- appeals never go through. The attorneys said it was a no-win situation with the school." It seemed especially unjust, she says, "because I'm a colleague of these people. It made me angrier."

As a single parent on a teacher's salary, Rohman couldn't afford private school tuition, and, like many districts, the other public schools in the county wouldn't accept an expelled student. So Rohman sent Anthony to live with her brother in Maryland, four hours away. She visits him every few weeks, but the separation has been tough. "I knew next year that he'd be going away to college," she says, "but when it happens within a week -- I just wasn't mentally prepared for it."

The Stafford County Public School District declined to comment on Anthony's case.

Hastings and his wife also sent their son to live with relatives -- Karel's grandmother, across the country in Montana -- for seven months. As much as they hated the separation from their son, says Hastings, it was better than keeping him in the local alternative school, where, ironically, what was designed as rehabilitation for Karel's "drug problem" ended up putting him at much greater risk. "He was the only little kid there," says Hastings. "Some of those kids were 18, smoking pot behind the building with no supervision." Hastings accompanied his son to school every day, worked on his dissertation at a local library, then drove Karel the 45 minutes back home.

Oftentimes, parents' lives are put on hold as they spend months -- or years -- defending their child. Hastings, a Ph.D. student in cultural studies at George Mason University, still hasn't finished graduate school. "I hoped I could get my dissertation wrapped up in that year, and now I still don't have it," he says. "Almost immediately after Karel's expulsion most of my time was taken up driving him to various things -- to appointments with the school, to the mandatory AA meetings and therapy." Setting aside his degree has affected his family's finances, he says. "It's cut our earning power. If I don't have the degree, I can't get the job. And I've had to keep paying tuition."

"At the beginning you think, OK, well, this is going to be an annoyance," says D.C. lawyer Paul Brown, 55, whose 17-year-old learning-disabled son was expelled early in his freshman year. "But it's a two-week suspension and then expulsion and it just goes on and on and on. I thought, well, I'm sure the school will be reasonable -- but by the time you realize you should've gotten a lawyer, it's too late."

Brown's son brought a toy gun, and real ammunition, to the bus stop to scare the kids who called him a "fag" on a daily basis. "I would have punished him severely," Brown wrote in an e-mail. But by acting in loco parentis, the school superseded Brown's parental decisions. "Since the school came down so hard on him, I had to shift gears to defend my son. He had no other defenders. I went from feeling that parents and teachers were united in educating my son to feeling the school system was the enemy." The district allowed his son into a neighboring public school (he'll graduate this spring), but only after hiring a personal security guard to escort Brown's son everywhere on campus.

Jeanette Hartwell, 47, moved her entire family from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., to the neighboring town of Ontario to live with relatives after her son DJ was expelled from Ruth Musser Middle School for joking with a classmate about opening fire in school with a Glock semiautomatic handgun. The Hartwells shelled out $15,000 in lawyers' fees to fight DJ's expulsion. When the board wouldn't allow DJ to return, the family coughed up an additional $13,000 to pay for private school tuition for DJ and his two younger brothers -- fees they couldn't afford on Jeanette's husband's salary as a police officer. The Hartwells were forced to sell the home they'd purchased a year earlier.

"It was a nice house, and we'd just begun to think of it as home," says DJ, now 16. He knew the conversation with his friend was inappropriate, says DJ, a self-described loner who loves books and politics. But "I was kind of starved for any sort of friendly interaction," he says. "So if he wanted to start a conversation about it I wasn't going to stop him. I didn't think it was harmful to anybody." That was the last conversation he had with his friend. After his expulsion, DJ says, "I felt very betrayed and very hurt. I was in shock. I felt very alone."

("We're not going to comment on this," said Cathy Preston, administrative assistant to the superintendent of Central School District in Rancho Cucamonga. "That was a private matter and we don't discuss students.")

Besides battling school districts, these parents also struggle to keep their children mentally healthy. As Dustin Seal's case illustrates, expulsion can have a deep effect on a child's emotional state and sense of self. "I see anxiety and depression becoming almost the most powerful things in their lives," says Jerry Wyckoff, a former school psychologist now in private practice in Overland Park, Kan., who has worked with about 15 children embroiled in zero tolerance cases. "The kids just can't understand why this happened to them. They feel completely, totally wronged. Adolescents have trouble trusting adults anyway, and this just confirms that all adults are against me; there's no one in the world who can help me."

For kids who are both expelled and arrested, finding a way to move on proves especially hard. Since he had a felony on his record, Dustin Seal wasn't able to find a job after his expulsion. "He wanted to be an attorney," says Dennis Seal, "but he couldn't even work at McDonald's."

And since expulsion means that the student is not only barred from school, but from all school events, activities that might have helped the child -- sports or clubs that could raise self-esteem or foster positive relationships with other kids -- are now off-limits. Hastings' son, the wrestler, was forced off the team since they trained at the local school.

Rohman's son, Anthony, always loved baseball, she says; playing for the school team was his passion. "After he left," she says, "I found his team jersey in the trash in his room. He was so proud of that before [his expulsion]."

For Brown and his wife, who were active school volunteers and supporters, their son's expulsion meant that they ended up ostracized as well. "Once your kid is no longer going to school with other kids, we no longer saw our friends," he says. "We didn't go to the games, we didn't go to the plays. We were totally isolated from people we'd known for years."

"But it's not just the parents who suffer," says Brown. "It's his older brother, too, because you have to focus all your attention on one kid."

Jeanette Hartwell's two younger sons were doing well in the public school when her oldest son, DJ, was expelled. Wary of the public school system, she enrolled them all in private school. "[My middle son] was in the band and played for the school's roller hockey team. He had to leave all that," she says. "It hurt him. He had a lot of friends and was well liked."

While parents like Dennis Seal have thrown themselves into fighting against zero tolerance -- Seal says he gets about a call a week from other parents asking for advice -- it's been difficult for parents, like Brown, to take any political action toward ending the policies. "It's hard to form a support group of people who hate the school, because you're also ashamed of your status as a parent," he says. "Your kid reflects on you. You go into the school year thinking everything is wonderful and your kid will be educated. Then you find out -- oh, my kid is one of those kids who shouldn't be in school at all."

Joining Parents Against Zero Tolerance has made Rohman more politically active, she says. She's attended an academic conference about school discipline with other PAZT members, and she presented a lengthy paper to the school board, arguing against her county's zero tolerance policies. The board agreed to start looking at individual cases instead of doling out the same punishments regardless of the details.

After her success with the board, she says, "I do feel like what you say and do can make a difference." But she's not planning to stick around to find out: After the school year is over, she's considering moving closer to her son and finding another teaching position. "I don't feel like I can stay here after this. I love my school; I love my job. I don't want to leave -- but I don't want to stay in a county that would do this to my son."

As for Seal, he's determined to make sure that his son did not die in vain. "I have to have closure," he says. "I don't want anything like this to ever happen again."

By Whitney Joiner

Whitney Joiner is an editor at Seventeen magazine and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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