The Texas law, HB 171, mandates that school administrators consider a range of factors — notably “intent or lack of intent” — in deciding on any major disciplinary action to be imposed on a student. That provision alone would certainly have resulted in no punishment for two Cobb high school seniors recently charged with felonies for having knives in their parked cars. DA Reynolds, to his credit, is moving to prevent the teenagers from serving time or being stuck with criminal records for innocent acts. He is also working with Cobb legislators who are leading a move to fix Georgia’s law.
The language of the Texas statute could indeed be a model, as Reynolds has suggested. The relevant part requires that “consideration will be given, as a factor in each decision concerning suspension, removal to a disciplinary alternative education program, expulsion or placement in a juvenile justice alternative education program, regardless of whether the decision concerns a mandatory or discretionary action, to: (A) self-defense; (B) intent or lack of intent at the time the student engaged in the conduct; (C) a student’s disciplinary history; or (D) a disability that substantially impairs the student’s capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of the student’s conduct.”
Texas enacted the law in 2009 in the wake of widespread outrage over the excessive and inappropriate punishments being handed out to students under the previous zero-tolerance law. For example, a high school student got a four-day suspension after a wooden bat was found in his vehicle — at least he didn’t face a felony charge, as did the two Cobb seniors. In another Texas case before the law was fixed, an honors student who forgot he had a kitchen knife in his car was clapped in an alternative placement center for students with disciplinary problems.
On the issue of how effective zero-tolerance laws are, consider this: Two years after the Texas law was enacted, a study by the Council of State Governments found that zero-tolerance did not necessarily improve schools in that state. To the contrary, the research discovered that schools with higher rates of suspending and expelling students for various kinds of misconduct did not perform any better on such key criteria as test scores and graduation rates than did other schools with similar student demographics. This was not a cursory study. It followed 929,000 students in grades seven through 12 for six years. Less than 3 percent of disciplinary infractions were for major incidents resulting in mandatory expulsion.
Texans got fed up with the havoc caused by their zero-tolerance law and the legislature got the message. The same thing is long overdue in our state. To put common sense into the law, it is imperative that the question of intent is taken into account, the same as it is everywhere — except on school campuses. It’s just common sense.