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Zero Tolerance? Not Exactly: School Districts Have Leeway When Dealing With Weapons

Bo Rader
Wichita Eagle
A no guns allowed sign at Southeast High School in 2016.

About two decades ago the Wichita School Board, disturbed by an increasing number of guns, knives and other weapons being brought to schools, decided to take a hard-line approach:

Zero tolerance.

The board, prompted by the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, passed a policy mandating that any student caught with a gun — or a realistic-looking replica — on school property or at a school-sponsored event would be expelled for a full year.

No weapons — no questions, no excuses.

In 1996, a Northwest High School honor student was expelled for his entire senior year after a paintball gun, partially hidden by a duffel bag, was found in the trunk of his car in the school parking lot. So tough was the policy, in fact, that school board members had to amend it to allow the ceremonial rifles used by JROTC drill teams.

Students and parents are required to sign a document during enrollment to acknowledge that they understand the policy.

Recently, though, in an effort to divert the so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline, districts have begun rethinking policies that lead to expulsions for non-violent offenses. That has meant more leeway in dealing with students accused of certain infractions, including weapons — and a dramatic decline in zero-tolerance expulsions.

In 2012, the state’s largest school district reported about 80 expulsions for zero-tolerance offenses, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. In 2016, that number dropped to zero.

“I don’t just say, ‘Oh, it’s zero tolerance. Out the door you go,’” said Klaus Kollmai, hearing officer for the Wichita district. He oversees nearly 800 hearings a year for students whose principals have recommended extensive suspensions or reassignment.

Watch The Wichita Eagle's interview with Kollmai

“I look at my kids from the standpoint that they’re students. . . . What are we going to do, put them out on the street — with no education, with no services, with no supervision?” he said. “I will do anything and everything I can as a hearing officer to keep a student in our schools with some sort of services.”

Superintendent’s discretion

To understand the Wichita district’s policy on weapons, you first have to be sure to read the whole thing.

It begins: “Any pupil who is found to have brought, handled, transmitted or to have been in possession of a weapon . . . including any firearm or replica firearm at school, on school property, or at a school supervised activity shall receive a mandatory expulsion from the school district for 186 school days.” Hence, the “zero tolerance” moniker.

But read a little further into the policy, and you’ll see this: “The Superintendent has the discretion to modify the expulsion requirement in a manner that is consistent with requirements of federal law.” That gives district officials extensive latitude in dealing with accused students and to consider each case individually.

Donna Whiteman, executive director of legal services for the Kansas Association of School Boards, says weapons infractions could include a shotgun accidentally left in a student’s trunk after a hunting trip or a kindergartner bringing a toy gun for show-and-tell.

“If there is no intent to harm anyone — no one was hurt, no one was threatened — that might be a situation where the hearing officer would look at: What has the history of this student been?” Whiteman said.

“School safety is certainly the number one concern. . . . But each case is different. No two children are alike.”

Getting creative

Kollmai, the Wichita hearing officer, said even in cases where a long-term suspension or expulsion is merited, he looks for alternatives to allow the student to continue earning credits toward graduation.

Credit Jaime Green / The Wichita Eagle
The Wichita Eagle
Klaus Kollmai

“I get creative in here at times — more creative than I used to be in terms of: What can I do with this kid and still make everybody feel that, quote-unquote, justice was served,” he said. “I look at that as a compromise.”

The Gateway alternative program, housed in the former Emerson Elementary at 2330 W. 15th St., was established to serve Wichita students who are removed from their base school. McAdams Academy, a non-accredited private school operated by the nonprofit Wichita Center for Behavioral and Academic Research, also serves middle or high school students who have been expelled or received a long-term suspension.

And just this year, the district launched Bryant Opportunity Academy, a K-6 school for young students struggling with behavior problems.

Some students facing expulsion end up transferring to a different school or finishing their classes online.

“In the ‘90s when these board policies were put in place, there were some real bad things happening within the schools,” Kollmai said. “We used to have 35 or 40 guns (a year), and they were real. . . We had gang issues — major ones — which led to violence and potential violence in our high schools.”

During the 1994-95 school year, the Wichita district reported 35 cases of finding guns or gun replicas. Two years later, after the zero tolerance weapons policy was implemented, there were 13.

Firearm incidents are even rarer now. Last school year, Kollmai said, one Wichita student was caught with a gun at school, “and it wasn’t a working one.” In the most recent case in the Wichita area, a Derby High School student was arrested after bringing a gun to school.

“Zero tolerance, when it was implemented, I think it was good for a while because, ‘Boom! This is it. This is what we’re going to do,’” Kollmai said. “It was a message to everyone that schools are sacred.”

“But what you have to understand about these zero-tolerance policies: It would be easy for me to rubber-stamp everything, and I would have 200 kids out on the street,” he said. “I mean, is that what we want? Is that what society wants? In my opinion, no.”

Changing the culture

Sheril Logan, president of the Wichita School Board, said the district’s zero-tolerance policy on weapons “changed the culture” in schools.

“I very much believe that it’s had a deterrent effect,” said Logan, a retired school administrator. “You ask any kid in our schools now, and they very quickly will say, ‘You get expelled if you bring a gun to school.’ I mean, they know the rule.”

On the other hand, she said, hearing officers should have some leeway in interpreting and enforcing the policy.

“Now, some things absolutely we cannot accept: If a kid brings a gun to school and threatens somebody, they’re gone. That is not acceptable in school and never will be,” she said.

“But we want to figure out how we keep kids in school, if at all possible,” she said. “We absolutely follow our policy. . . . But it’s to no one’s advantage to throw a kid out in the street, because then their odds of graduating go down greatly.”

This article was a collaboration between KMUW and The Wichita Eagle. To see a video interview with Klaus Kollmai visit Kansas.com

Stephan Bisaha, based at KMUW in Wichita, is an education reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.