Unequal School Justice

By Lawrence Hardy

As schoolhouse fights go, it wasn’t that remarkable: two ninth-grade boys throwing punches in the hallway over a perceived slight, or perhaps a look one gave the other earlier in the day. Somewhere in the mix: jealousy over one boy contacting the friend of the other’s girlfriend, the details lost in a haze of adolescent intrigue.

This much can be established regarding the recent alteration at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles: There was one bloody nose.

But if the fight wasn’t extraordinary, the school’s response was. No one was suspended. Police weren’t called, and no charges were filed. Instead the boys and their parents met with school principal Ben Gertner the next day and agreed to let the whole thing cool down.

“Punches don’t solve anything,” Gertner recalled one of the parents saying.

Why was the school’s commonsense response extraordinary? Because in an era of widespread zero tolerance and mounting complaints that districts are “criminalizing” discipline, this 3,000-student school in the poor, largely Hispanic community of Boyle Heights is doing something different.

“It started with this idea that you want to emphasize, define, and teach behavioral expectations, instead of waiting for students to break the rules,” says Gertner, principal of Roosevelt’s School of Communications, New Media, and Technology.

Roosevelt is part of a growing movement to rethink rigid zero- tolerance policies, which affect all types of schools, but particularly those that serve large numbers of minority students. It is spurred in part by a creeping law enforcement mentality that critics say is less about creating safe and nurturing schools than preserving institutional order -- often by suspending or expelling the very students who need help the most.

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