Brandon Johnson's life changed instantly after a butter knife fell out of his pocket earlier this school year.

He was handcuffed to a bench in his former school's police office, arrested, and then suspended for 10 days. He was later transferred to a disciplinary school.

"I am not receiving the same quality education as I was before," said the 16-year-old 10th-grader, "and now I'm behind."

Rather than a trip to the principal's office or an after-school detention, students punished for a wide array of offenses now face suspension, expulsion and even arrest under the district's controversial zero-tolerance policy.

According to a report released yesterday by the advocacy group Youth United for Change, the policy is too harsh and does nothing to improve school safety.

The number of expulsions in schools has skyrocketed in recent years, and nearly all of the students expelled in the 2008-09 school year were between the ages of 8 and 14, according to the report. The most common ages for expulsions were 11 and 12, according to the port.

And if you're black or Latino, your chances of being suspended, transferred to an alternative school or arrested are far higher, the report's authors state.

Shana Kemp, a district spokeswoman, disputed the report's data. She said last night that the youngest student expelled in the 2008-09 school year was 12.

Ashley McKnight, a Kensington Creative and Performing Arts junior, said that the practice has eroded the morale of students.

"It makes people not care anymore because they feel like, 'I get in trouble once, I don't care, so I'll get in trouble again,' " she said. "A lot of us feel like that."

"When some students feel imprisoned in their schools, it's a problem, and I don't think students should feel that way," said Tone Elliott, a junior at Camelot School, a disciplinary school in the Northeast.

The report also claims that the zero-tolerance policy winds up costing the district money. The district spends $48 million on disciplinary schools, according to the report.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who sits on Council's education committee, said that she plans to hold public hearings on the issue.

"This report is not surprising," she said.

The report recommends that the district use the money it spends on security and surveillance to add more guidance counselors, social workers and other support staff in schools.

The report also urges local and federal policymakers to work with parents, teachers and students to develop policies that will limit the use of severe punishments and eliminate racial disparities in discipline.

In a statement responding to the report, the district noted that they've improved the hearing process and cited a steady drop in suspensions over the last four years. The district didn't immediately provide those figures.

The letter also noted its commitment to due process and providing students options.

"It is certainly not our goal to guide them toward the juvenile- or criminal-justice system," according to the statement. "The safety of all students is imperative, and they have to feel safe in order to learn."