But the new laws -- which in most instances require school districts to consider disciplinary action on a case-by-case basis -- may not be having much of an effect, some observers say.
Consider the case of Samuel Burgos, who brought a clear plastic toy gun to Pembroke Pines Charter Elementary School West in Miramar, Fla., last year when he was a 7-year-old second grader. When the toy gun, which fired plastic beads, was discovered after Samuel told a friend it was in his backpack, the principal reported the incident to the Broward County school district.
Last November, the superintendent's office expelled Samuel, who had no prior disciplinary problems. The decision was upheld by a hearing officer, who works for the district. An appeal before the school board is scheduled for Oct. 19.
The district's action came despite the Florida Legislature's passage of a new law months earlier eliminating the previous zero-tolerance policy and giving schools leeway in considering disciplinary action.
"The school board members aren't even aware of what the law says," Alfreda D. Coward, Samuel's lawyer, said in an interview with AOL News. "They are saying they didn't have a choice."
States adopted zero-tolerance policies in 1994, when the government started requiring schools that receive federal funding to expel students who have a gun on school grounds. In many cases, state lawmakers and school boards expanded that mandate.
A 1997 survey of more than 1,200 public schools by the U.S. Department of Education found that 94 percent had zero-tolerance policies for firearms, 91 percent for other weapons, 88 percent for drugs and 79 percent for violent acts.
The policies resulted in scores of sensational cases:
- A 12-year-old in Inverness, Fla., was arrested, cuffed and taken to jail for stomping in a puddle to splash his classmates.
- A kindergartener in Rhode Island was suspended for bringing a plastic knife to school so he could cut cookies.
- An eighth-grader in Virginia was suspended for taking a knife from a suicidal friend and putting it in his locker for the day.
- An 11-year-old in Oklahoma was suspended for wearing a Muslim holy scarf to school.
- A 14-year-old in Florida went to jail as an adult for six weeks after being accused of stealing $2 from a classmate.
- A 6-year-old in North Carolina was suspended for kissing a girl.
Indeed, between 2002 and 2006, suspensions increased by 250,000 to 3.3 million students and expulsions by 15,000 to 102,000 students, according to the Dignity in Schools Campaign.
During the 2007-2008 school year, 43 percent of serious disciplinary action in U.S. schools was for "insubordination," and the expulsion rate for preschool students was more than three times that for K-12 students, according to the campaign, which works to reduce the dropout rate in schools.
Lawmakers in Rhode Island (2007), Florida (2009), Colorado (2009), Texas (2009) and Georgia (2010) are among those who have made changes to their zero-tolerance policies in recent years to allow schools to consider mitigating circumstances.
"It would be very hard to have a sense yet of whether it's working," said Chloe Dugger, coordinator of the Dignity in Schools Campaign. "The federal data comes out four years behind."
In Texas, school districts have always had a lot of discretion, with only a few mandatory offenses, said Billy G. Jacobs, the associate executive director of the Texas School Safety Center.
But the state law was amended in 2009 to require schools to consider intent. Discipline statistics for the 2009-2010 school year are due to be released next month, but Jacobs and others don't expect there will be much of a change.
"Maybe in some very, very positive, active, district, but I don't think overall statewide you'll see any significant difference," he said, arguing that districts need to have some incentive for reducing the number of disciplinary referrals.
"One of the most horrific things is when we push them out and send them home and they have no educational opportunity," said Jacobs, a former senior director for the division of school safety at the Texas Education Authority.
But Dugger noted that in some schools in Los Angeles, when suspension numbers go down, the arrest numbers go up, meaning administrators are no longer disciplining students for being disrespectful, but are instead calling the police and reporting disorderly conduct.
"A few decades ago the student would be sent home with a note to the parents," she said, noting that low-income students, students of color and special education students are disproportionately disciplined.
Still, there may be some positive indicators.
An elementary school in Grand Junction, Colo., this week announced that a kindergarten student who brought a toy gun to school would not be expelled. A teacher saw the toy in the boy's backpack and reported it to her supervisors, who reviewed his intent and found it was innocent, Jeff Kirtland, spokesman for Mesa County Valley School District 51, told AOL News. Asked if this meant that the change in the law was working in Colorado, Kirtland said it was in his district. "It makes sense to keep kids engaged in instruction," he said.
In a different case, 8-year-old David Morales wanted to honor American troops in June, so he wore a camouflage hat that he had decorated with an American flag and small plastic Army figures. His school in Coventry, R.I., banned it, deciding it violated a zero-tolerance policy for weapons because the tiny soldiers held guns. It told the family it would be OK if he replaced the figures with ones that didn't have weapons.
Former state Sen. Daniel Issa, who sponsored the legislation that changed Rhode Island's zero-tolerance law in 2007, said he thought the district's actions were "still a little extreme" but he was pleased that David wasn't suspended or expelled.
As for Samuel, the Broward County school district has since rewritten its code of conduct to make an exception for elementary school students who carry toy guns, said Coward, his lawyer. Still, Samuel was not allowed to register for school this fall, and since his parents didn't want to send him to an alternative school for "at-risk" students, he has been homeschooled for the past year.
Nadine Drew, a spokeswoman for Broward County public schools, would only confirm the hearing on Oct. 19 and had no further comment.
"If Samuel were to commit this same offense today he would not be subject to mandatory expulsion," Coward said. At the hearing next week, "they have the opportunity to cure that now."