Our Voice: Empowering principals to make disciplinary decisions smart move for Kennewick

A voice of reason can be heard resonating through one Mid-Columbia school district.

Kennewick has decided to take a more reasoned approach to discipline than the infamous "zero tolerance" policies used by school districts across the nation.

We've all heard the ridiculous tales of students being severely reprimanded for innocent actions. A miniature toy replica of a weapon or a plastic knife in the lunch box to spread peanut butter could get a student expelled. Harsh punishments and on-campus arrests for minor infractions or nonviolent actions became standard practice in the era of zero tolerance.

But thinking has shifted in recent years because the policy in many cases has done more harm than good. Increased drop-out rates have been linked to the harsh punishments. School officials are starting to treat childhood indiscretions as learning experiences and not as the first step to being branded as a criminal.

Fights seem to cause the greatest number of disciplinary actions under zero-tolerance policies, even for children who were simply defending themselves from another student's aggression, then ended up on the receiving end of rigorous discipline policies as well.

The Kennewick School Board has joined many others across the nation that have changed policies on suspension, expulsion and misconduct.

A fight still will get a student sent home, but administrators will have more discretion when it comes to punishment and consequences, especially for those who did not instigate the bad behavior.

"If it's obvious that it's one-sided, the principal should have discretion to take appropriate action," said board member Ron Mabry.

In Kennewick alone, almost 300 suspensions were because of fights and altercations during the 2012-13 school year. Eight students were expelled. Both figures represent more than double the punishments doled out for offenses of bullying, tobacco, alcohol and drug use combined.

The volume of suspensions and expulsions disrupt the education process, the core of any school district's mission.

"We know that discipline practices affect students' access to education and, ultimately, their success," said Washington State Board of Education Chairwoman Kristina Mayer.

Removing kids from school not only affects their education, but also other activities that may have kept them involved in school, including athletics and performing arts.

One of these mandated suspensions could be from one to 10 school days on the short end or more than 10 days for a long-term punishment. The longer they are out of school, the more damage is done to the pursuit of an education.

Principals in Kennewick now will have the ability to "evaluate and consider the circumstances of the situation and any other relevant information, and shall exercise discretion in determining the appropriate outcome."

Students still will likely be removed from school during the investigation phase of an incident, but the ultimate punishments will be more flexible. Officials also are looking for ways to make sure that students ultimately found innocent of wrongdoing have their records cleared.

"We need to avoid becoming a criminal court," one school board member said.

Education is the ultimate goal and using bad situations to teach better behavior through reasonable means should be part of the process.