The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights estimates that 87,000 students were expelled in the U.S. during the 1997-1998 school year, the only year for which the federal government has statistics. State-level data suggest that expulsions have soared in recent years — a phenomenon most often attributed to the proliferation of zero tolerance policies intended to make schools safer. In Illinois, for instance, 1,182 students were expelled from school in the 1990-91 school year. By 1998-99 that number had more than doubled to 2,744.
"We've gotten expulsion happy," says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Many mark the federal Gun-Free School Act (GFSA) of 1994 as the birth of zero tolerance fever — and of the rise in expulsions and suspensions. That legislation required states to pass laws mandating that local school districts expel for one calendar year any student bringing a gun to school. The act carried its own zero tolerance enforcement: states that failed to pass legislation would lose their federal education funding. All 50 states passed legislation.
Some states and school districts took the federal requirement further, ordering expulsion for weapon or drug possession, for fighting, and for threatening violence. "We then had a proliferation of local policies that were broader and more sweeping — sweeping kids out of schools," says Joan First, director of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students.
The number of students expelled for bringing a firearm to school has actually gone down since passage of the GFSA — to 3,930 in the 1997-98 school year, from 5,724 the year before. However, federal officials admit that record-keeping problems may have inflated the initial numbers. Nonexistent, incomplete, inconsistent, and inaccurate student expulsion data are rife in school districts as well as the national level.
Decatur illustrates how hard it is to grasp the size of the problem. Asked how many students were expelled in the last school year, top school district officials provided three different numbers: 14 (Superintendent Kenneth Arndt), 10 (his administrative assistant, who keeps the records on expelled students), and 12 (Decatur's report to the state).