We must distinguish between scary students and annoying ones


Attorney Mike Tafelski has championed students unfairly suspended or expelled.

One of his cases led to a state Supreme Court ruling last year that students cannot be expelled for fighting if they can prove they acted in self-defense. In what was its first decision in a school discipline case, the high court said, "Schools with 'zero tolerance' policies against school fights must nevertheless apply the Georgia statute that gives students the right to argue self-defense as justification for the fight."

In this guest column, Tafelski, supervising attorney for the Georgia Legal Services Program, talks about the misguided zeal that has led to zero tolerance policies in many schools.

Tafelski explains why that approach has not worked, citing  Steven Teske, chief judge of the juvenile court of Clayton County and a national leader in juvenile justice reform. Teske says adults need to distinguish between the kids who make us mad and those who scare us and then respond appropriately.

Tafelski’s point: Zero tolerance removes our ability to distinguish those students.

By Mike Tafelski

With graduation season winding down and summer heating up, schools are engaging in important work to improve school safety. This momentum has been prompted by the recent school shootings in Santa Fe, Texas, and Parkland, Florida, resulting in the deaths of 22 children and five teachers. Parents, politicians, educators, and advocates are looking for solutions to school violence.

In Georgia, we have had this conversation before, after the Columbine school shooting – and, unfortunately, we locked onto zero tolerance policies. In doing so, we lost our common sense, and I fear we are heading down that disastrous path once again. Zero tolerance sounds good in political speeches, but does not improve school safety and disproportionately harms students with disabilities and students of color.

As a civil legal aid attorney, I represent low-income children who have been unfairly and unlawfully suspended and expelled from Georgia schools. I have represented students who were expelled for possessing “party popper noisemakers,” exercising their right to self-defense against schoolyard bullies, inadvertently carrying pocket knives in their backpack, and being victims of sexual assault and statutory rape.

About one week after Parkland, I successfully argued before the Georgia Board of Education that a client’s unlawful permanent expulsion should be reversed. My client, a ninth-grade student with a disability, had been described by his teachers as a model student. His expulsion resulted from an off-campus incident, unrelated to school, which presented no danger or disruption at school, to other students, or to school employees.

Despite admitting that no legal basis existed for the expulsion, the local school board’s attorney waived a picture of Parkland shooter Nicholas Cruz and, without any evidence to support her argument, compared my client to him in an attempt to justify the school’s discipline decision. I was shocked, but not surprised. This flawed thinking and fear mongering permeates and plagues many of our school districts across the state.

Cruz had a long history of violent behavior and threats, access to weapons, and repeated refusals to engage with support that was offered to him. He is what many people picture when they think of kids who have been expelled in Georgia.

But, in fact, it’s mostly kids like my clients who are expelled. Clayton County juvenile court judge Steve Teske says that we, as adults, need to distinguish between the kids who make us mad and those who scare us and then respond appropriately. Zero tolerance removes our ability to distinguish those students.

Instead, zero tolerance is more about saving school districts money than protecting students. Kids who are expensive to teach – kids with disabilities, kids who need mental health and behavioral supports, kids who have been traumatized, kids living in poverty – get kicked out for minor infractions. And in Georgia, students are not guaranteed the right to attend alternative school or transfer to another school district when expelled.

Sometimes they are pushed into “therapeutic” schools, a separate system that is now being investigated and sued by the United States Department of Justice for failing to provide either therapy or education. If their parents can afford it, expelled students may be able to attend private schools or homeschooling – but many come from families already struggling to make ends meet.

The definition of discipline is “to teach.” But the blind enforcement of zero tolerance policies only teaches children that they are unwanted and undeserving of our support and compassion. Alienating children, negatively labeling them, and criminalizing their misbehavior does not make our communities safer. We give children the effective tools to succeed as adults when we offer empathy and positive, collaborative approaches to solving their challenges and meeting their needs.

As we work to improve school safety in the wake of the latest shootings, let’s commit to evidence-based, appropriate solutions, instead of expelling students under the guise of zero tolerance.