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Ohio students call for end to 'zero tolerance' policies in public schools

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A movement to end the "zero tolerance" approach to discipline in public schools is gaining traction in Washington, Michigan, and Ohio. School districts across the country have adopted zero tolerance policies to curb violent and disruptive behavior. But critics say that zero tolerance is being applied too broadly, often suspending or expelling students for minor infractions.

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A bipartisan bill to end zero tolerance in Ohio was introduced in February, but has not yet received a hearing. Ohio House Bill 443 would abolish zero tolerance policies and prescribe other methods of dealing with student misbehavior, "including prevention, intervention, restorative justice, peer mediation, and counseling."

To spur legislators to move on the bill, about 50 students, educators, and supporters held a rally outside the Ohio Department of Education on Friday afternoon.

Tristina Allen described her experience in 2008 as a high school freshman, when she got into a fight with another student. "They took me out in handcuffs," she said. "All of my classmates saw me walking out of the school like a criminal. I was a good student. I'd never been in trouble before."

Allen is now a junior at Wright State University and a member of the Ohio Student Association (OSA), the group that organized the rally.

"Zero tolerance policies were started 20 years ago as a reaction to people not knowing what to do about discipline problems," said Ohio Education Association vice president Scott DiMauro. "We need to invest in resources to make sure that teachers have the tools they need to build relationships with students. We can't have just one or two options for dealing with discipline problems. We have to be proactive, not reactive."

A report from the Children's Defense Fund found that zero-tolerance discipline practices are used disproportionately on students of color and other marginalized groups, and contribute to the "School to Prison Pipeline." It recommends positive interventions and restorative justice as more effective ways to manage student behavior.

"In the 2007–2008 school year, black students were almost five and a half times as likely as white students to be suspended out of school in Ohio," said Charles Noble, legal policy analyst at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.

Ohio State University student Marquan McCarrel spoke about his experience with zero tolerance as a senior at Franklin Heights High School. "I got expelled from school for putting my hands on a teacher in self-defense," he said.

The teacher "had multiple incidents of altercations with other students, and was never disciplined properly for it," McCarrel said. "And here I was, sitting at home for the last month of my senior year."

The protesters marched around the Ohio Statehouse and ended outside the office of Rep. Gerald Stebelton, a Republican co-sponsor of Ohio House Bill 443. Rep. Stebelton and his aide were not in the office, so the students left a letter encouraging him to advocate for the legislation. "We will follow up with our letter asking to have a meeting," said OSA organizer James Hayes.

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