The Anchorage School District (ASD) has had a strict zero tolerance policy for firearms and assaultive weapons, selling of drugs, and second offenses for drugs and alcohol since the mid-1990s. These policies were formulated as a result of an increase in firearms and other potentially lethal weapons being brought onto school campuses, and national and state legislation requiring automatic expulsions and long-term suspensions for certain types of student misbehavior and violation of the district's discipline code of conduct. The development of these policies was done through a public process by the Anchorage School District administration and School Board after receiving input from ASD staff, parents, and students.
Over the past two decades, these policies have been revised with more attention being paid to developing some options for non-violent students. Administrators and educators have been trained in many proactive approaches to better engage students, particularly students who are not motivated and interested in school and their studies, or who have other life situations that are interfering in their school success. Many of these methods incorporate culturally responsive approaches, social-emotional learning skills, positive behavior supports, and real attention to brain development and learning styles of students.
Since the 1990s, the Anchorage School District administration has participated in a number of task forces and committees attempting to reduce juvenile crime and to decrease recidivism, while requiring consequences for the violation of policies and laws.
Master William Hitchcock, a Master of the Anchorage Children's Court (Master Hitchcock retired in 2012), facilitated the Juvenile Justice Working Group beginning in the mid-1990s. This group comprised key individuals from all areas of juvenile justice, children's services, public defenders and prosecutors, the Alaska Attorney General, the Anchorage Police Department, the Municipal Assembly and municipal prosecutors, the local school board and administration, the Anchorage Youth Court, and the Alaska Office of the U.S. Attorney, among others. The entire focus of the group in the beginning was to establish a Youth Offender Program which mandated consequences for first time juvenile offenders, and at the same time, provided counseling, mediation, conflict resolution, and community service, rather than incarceration in the local youth detention facility. The program was called "Making a Difference." The Anchorage Youth Court (AYC) ran the program using grant funding, some local resources, and many community agencies. Cases involving non-violent offenders were referred by the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice to the AYC for adjudication. The program was very successful. The ASD supported the program because it allowed the students who committed low-level crimes to continue in school in many cases because the offenses occurred off campus and/or on weekends and during school vacations. Students benefited from the counseling and other supports put in place, and in most instances they did not repeat the offenses and they did better in school.
This working group also wrestled with the issue of what to do with students who committed violent crimes, brought firearms and other weapons onto campus or to school activities, or sold and distributed drugs and alcohol. The ASD's "zero tolerance" policy required immediate recommendation for expulsion and withdrawal from school, even when there was an appeal. The Anchorage School Board policy was very clear and was well-supported by most of the staff, parents, and the community. Most people agreed with the view that criminal behavior was a choice and there were consequences. Students who chose to violate the law, or rules, should be removed from the school environment so the educators could teach, and the rest of the student body could continue to learn in a safe teaching and learning environment.
Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (now U.S. Senator) convened a Community Youth Violence/Gang Response Task Force in 2005 with U. S. Attorney for the District of Alaska Nelson Cohen. This task force was made up of many of the same groups and people who had participated in the Juvenile Justice Working Group. Others were added, most notably the United Way of Anchorage, the Alaska Court System, and representatives from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The task force's purpose was to reduce the impact of gangs and their criminal activity, to find alternatives to immediate suspension/expulsion of students, and to recommend a community-wide approach in support of families who were struggling with these issues. It was widely acknowledged that a disproportionate share of students who were expelled or suspended were males, and more disturbing, were from the African American, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Alaska Native populations.
While expelled or suspended, these students were not getting an education, and, in many cases, were committing more crime because they had no supervision or constructive activities. The task force wrestled with the issues and tried to find a balance between having serious consequences for students who violated laws and rules, and the intuitive knowledge that the young person still needed an education in order to be rehabilitated and become a productive citizen. Youth who were incarcerated were required to go to school at the juvenile facility. For students who were expelled or suspended there was a definite gap in educational services that would reduce their ability to graduate on time-if at all. The other major issue to be resolved was funding. All agreed that this was not the school districts' responsibility alone, but in order to really solve the problem, a community-based shared services model would be required.
The ASD was already collaborating with a number of community and government agencies, many of which began with the network established with Master Hitchcock's Juvenile Justice Working Group. The Anchorage Police Department was already a strong partner with the district due to a good working relationship with the various chiefs of police and the ASD superintendent, along with officers and educators. This partnership grew even stronger with the addition in 2003 of the School Resource Officer (SRO) Program. Eighteen APD officers were assigned to the high schools, one middle school, and the superintendent's office through a federal Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant. The program was fully funded with a federal U.S. Department of Justice grant the first year, with supplements of office space, computer equipment, etc. provided by the ASD. The funding requirements of the grant called for increasing municipal funding and decreasing federal funding over the four-year period of the grant. This caused ripples politically from some elected municipal officials, but the strong community and student/educator support for the SROs allowed the program to strengthen and thrive. The officers were a deterrent when necessary, but overall, they provided excellent role modeling and a proactive approach to youth and the many issues that often led them to criminal activity. The program has wide support, but the current prospect of the municipality requiring the ASD to fully fund the salaries and benefits of the SROs-at a time of substantial educational budget cuts-puts the future of the program in jeopardy. The SRO program is successful because of the quality of the officers, and the high level of trust between the ASD, the APD, and the staff and students at all levels in our schools. The recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut may deter a reduction in this very successful program. The Anchorage community must truly engage in the discussion of the proactive benefits of this program before any changes are made.
Along with the SRO program, the recommendations of the Community Youth Violence/Gang Response Task Force proposed a multi-agency funded pilot program for expelled and long-term suspended youth. It was called StepUp. Agreements were made to have the ASD hire the staff and supply the educational equipment, while the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice provided the probation staff and other agency supports. Space was rented in a facility downtown where the Nine Star Educational Services programs were delivered. Student numbers were limited to ten the first year and the program was voluntary. Strict protocols were put in place, and evaluated regularly. Students who succeeded educationally and made progress towards graduation were allowed to graduate with a diploma after reinstatement by the School Board. Some students chose to apply to go back to a regular or alternative ASD school; each case was managed individually. Some students resisted the rules and stopped attending; other students applied to take their place. Each graduate was celebrated and, hopefully, lessons were learned that will be carried with each individual on the road to becoming a contributing citizen. The future of the program will depend on academic success rates, and a decision by all entities as to whether the investment is producing the desired results. If the desired results are seen, there will need to be consideration for expansion of the program in a bigger facility with more staff.
Many school districts around the country are realizing that these types of approaches are saving lives and mitigating the negative effects of zero tolerance policies and out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. There has been a sea change in attitudes regarding the "one size fits all" zero tolerance approach. It is now widely understood that if a community really values its youth, and providing a safe place to learn, live, and play, collaborative approaches work best. Educating our youth so they can be successful and productive citizens is the responsibility of all of us-not just the schools. When families are struggling, community interventions are required. Priorities need to be clear, and adequate funding is necessary to provide the supports needed. No matter the cost of prevention activities and programs, investing in our youth now is less expensive and more beneficial than incarceration!
Carol Comeau was an educator for 38 years in the Anchorage School District. She retired on June 30, 2012, after serving 12 years as the Superintendent of Schools.