The leadership of the American Bar Association voted Monday to recommend ending "zero tolerance" school discipline policies and stopping the government's use of secret evidence in most immigration cases.
The zero tolerance policies — which can mandate expulsion or referral to a juvenile or criminal court "without regard to the circumstances or nature of the offense or the student's history" — are unfair and inappropriate for many children, advocates said.
"Zero tolerance has become a one-size-fits-all solution to all the problems that schools confront," said a report accompanying the resolution adopted by the policy-making House of Delegates of the 400,000-member lawyers' organization. "It has redefined students as criminals, with unfortunate consequences."
The ABA resolution, approved without a roll call vote on the closing day of the group's winter meeting, has no legal effect, but advocates hope it will prompt schools to re-evaluate such policies maintained by many of the nation's approximately 14,000 school districts. The policies typically cover weapons, drugs or violence in school.
Those who oppose zero tolerance say the rules have gone too far and often "criminalize" students.
One example in the ABA report: A 12-year-old referred to Louisiana police for telling classmates in the lunch line, "I'm going to get you," if they ate all the potatoes before it was his turn.
Supporters of zero tolerance rules say they help keep schools safe, and that parents and law enforcement generally support them.
Recommends Changes in Immigration Law
The ABA's House of Delegates also agreed to several recommendations for changing immigration law. Again, the ABA positions — these also taken without a recorded vote — have no legal bearing, but the organization is likely to back them up with lobbying efforts in Congress.
The group approved recommending changes to a 1996 anti-terrorism law that has made it far easier for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to use secret evidence against noncitizens. The INS typically has done so in cases of suspected terrorism, citing the potential damage to national security if the evidence became public.
The ABA policy opposes secret evidence in most immigration cases. An exception would let the government supply unclassified summaries in "extraordinary cases where there are legitimate national security concerns."
A report accompanying the recommendation cites the case of a Palestinian academic jailed for three years in Florida without trial. Mazen Al-Najjar was released in December without ever seeing the evidence behind the government's allegation that he was a front for Islamic terrorists.
Legislation introduced in Congress' last session would have repealed portions of the 1996 law, but the measures did not pass before the session ended.
The ABA also approved a proposal calling for government-funded lawyers to represent unaccompanied children during immigration proceedings and a Justice Department office to handle the special needs of children at all stages of the immigration process.
The group also supported another recommendation that will ally the ABA with immigrant women seeking asylum in the United States on grounds that they may face sexual persecution in their home country.
The Justice Department already has proposed rule changes making it easier for women to make that claim.