Pushing Back Against Zero Tolerance

Students don’t like zero-tolerance disciplinary policies. They have been demonstrating against those policies, and now, the adults are beginning to agree.

In October of last year, a campaign Called Dignity in Schools declared a National Week of Action on School Pushout. Thousands of students, parents and educators in 28 cities and the District of Columbia protested zero tolerance and the punishments usually meted out with an infraction: suspension or expulsion.

The Complaint?

Zero tolerance originally addressed illegal activities like selling drugs. Many state legislatures have mandated zero-tolerance policies with suspension and expulsion as the punishment for crimes such as selling drugs and bringing a weapon to school.

Over time, however, the policy has broadened in scope to include behaviors that pose no threat to others such as truancy and even dress code violations. That’s the real problem with zero tolerance: the consequences are always the same. Regardless of the infraction, rule-breakers are suspended or expelled.

As such, zero tolerance produces bizarre stories like this: A 13-year-old middle school student in Jefferson County, Colo., received an assignment to write a story about bullying. The youngster’s story told of an angry bullying victim who plans to destroy part of his school in an act of revenge. The boy’s teacher thought the story was so good that she showed it to the principal. Worried that the story revealed the boy as a potential threat, the principal showed the story to the police, who arrested the boy, charging him with threatening on school grounds. He was eventually expelled.

Another example: Two friends, both students at a high school in Jefferson County, Colo., had a friendly pushing contest in the hallway one day. They were pushing each other into lockers. Neither was hurt. Each received tickets for felony criminal mischief and third degree assault. School officials expelled each.

You can find hundreds of stories about school officials setting their better judgment aside for zero-tolerance policies.

Parents and students are beginning to say enough is enough, pointing to research suggesting that zero tolerance in many — but not all — instances may do more harm than good.

Is Zero Tolerance Effective: The Research

In 2006, the American Psychological Association (APA) commissioned a Zero Tolerance Task Force to examine research into the effects of zero-tolerance policies on students, families and communities and, if necessary, to recommend reforms.

The task force report — “Are Zero-Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools?” — asserts that little evidence shows zero-tolerance policies to be effective. While the report is six years old, researchers studying disciplinary issues in K-12 schools continue to cite its findings.

Is it zero tolerance that is ineffective? Or are the consequences — suspension or expulsion — the real problem?

“We see merit to some zero-tolerance policies,” says Paul Timm, PSP, president of RETA Security, Inc., a Lemont, Ill.-based security-consulting firm with a specialty in in K-12 schools. “It is a way to remove loopholes and make sure that there are consequences.”

But Timm sees problems in the way schools apply the concept. Zero tolerance means that a school won’t tolerate some action, he says. If a district sets a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, then a bully must suffer consequences. But the consequences need not always involve suspension or expulsion — unless of course the law says it must.

In fact, research suggests that frequent use of suspension and expulsion can lead to unwanted outcomes.

Proponents of zero tolerance say that swift, certain punishment will deter other students and improve overall behavior. The APA’s Zero Tolerance Task Force found the opposite to be true: “Rather than reducing the likelihood of disruption, however, school suspension in general appears to predict higher future rates of misbehavior and suspension among those students who are suspended.”

Worse, suspensions tend to be applied disproportionately.

“Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice,” a policy brief published by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) and authored by Daniel J. Losen, makes both points: “Overall, the evidence shows the following: there is no research base to support frequent suspension or expulsion in response to non-violent and mundane forms of adolescent misbehavior; large disparities by race, gender and disability status are evident in the use of these punishments; frequent suspension and expulsion are associated with negative outcomes; and better alternatives are available."

Alternatives to Suspension and Expulsion

In the City of Baltimore, recent reforms have cut the number of suspensions from a high of 26,000 in 2004 to fewer than 10,000 in 2011. 

A new superintendent in Baltimore City Schools, Dr. Andres Alonso, directed schools to discipline students through mediation, counseling and parent-teacher conferences. He instituted a system of incentives that included activities like sports and clubs. He assigned mental health professionals to each school. “Kids come as is,” Alonso told a reporter from the New York Times, “and it’s our job to engage them.”

Of the Baltimore success story, Losen writes, “The Baltimore example suggests that alternatives to the harsh, yet increasingly popular, measures may prove more effective in creating school communities that are more productive and inclusive.”

Maybe it is suspension and expulsion that should be expelled.