"Just talking about it suggests that, if not a pendulum swing, a pendulum creep is in play," says Mr. Schwartz, though he cautions that many states have given their school districts discretion when it comes to discipline, making the issue hard to legislate.
It's particularly difficult to talk about relaxing discipline right now, a week after the school shooting on Minnesota's Red Lake reservation. But even the Red Lake school district Superintendent Stuart Desjarlait has admitted that zero- tolerance policies can't keep kids safe if a student is motivated to kill.
"It goes to show that if something is going to happen, it's going to happen - no matter what you do," he said at a news conference last week. Red Lake High School was equipped with a metal detector, security cameras, and guards.
While zero-tolerance policies took root nationally with the passage of the 1994 Gun-Free School Act, it wasn't until the shootings at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999 that school officials began rapidly expanding the types of infractions that merit expulsion.
Today, they range from spitting to swearing to skipping school. Principals and teachers say the intent is to head off bad behavior before it escalates into violence. And, in fact, there is evidence that fewer weapons and drugs are being brought on campus since zero-tolerance policies were enacted. Violent crime on campus fell 50 percent between 1992 and 2002, according to a federal report.
"Clearly if you are a classroom teacher dealing with disciplinary problems that come as a result of doing your job, there are times when you need very strong rules and regulations," says Gerald Newberry, executive director of the National Education Association's Health Information Network. "Unfortunately ... many school boards and school administrators misinterpreted the intent of the law and began taking first graders out of class for bringing nail clippers to school."
Further, he says, shrinking budgets have left schools without the means to properly address children's emotional issues.