Zero-tolerance policies have been popular for years in school districts around the country, often instituted on a set of assumptions that research shows are not true.
My colleague Donna St. George has chronicled two cases in Fairfax County, the latest a girl forced out of her public school because she had prescription acne medicine in her locker, which underscore the problems with such policies. The earlier case involved a 15-year-old football player who wound up taking his own life after the fallout of an infraction. And St. George reported that there are a number of other cases in which parents questioned the penalty of their child’s actions, calling it unduly harsh. The Fairfax School Board is planning to start a review of the system’s discipline policies Monday.
Fairfax is hardly the only place this happens, of course; in New York City, a fourth-grader was suspended after putting a Post-it note that said “kick me” on a classmate. The girl was said not to have staged an ill-advised prank but to have been a bully.
Zero-tolerance policies are not the same everywhere, and there is no single definition for them. What they have in common is the application of preset consequences for behaviors, most often severe and punitive, intended to be applied regardless of the gravity of behavior, the situation a student finds themselves in or mitigating circumstances. The underlying idea is that this penalty system will serve as a deterrent.
The American Psychological Association put together a task force to research the effectiveness of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, and the panel issued a report titled, “Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations,” published in the December 2008 American Psychologist.
It found that five common assumptions upon which zero-tolerance policies are often based are wrong. Here are the assumptions and what the report says is actually true:
ASSUMPTION #1: School violence is at a crisis level and increasing, thus necessitating forceful, no-nonsense strategies for violence prevention.
REALITY: Although any level of violence and disruption is unacceptable in schools and must be continually addressed in education, the evidence does not support an assumption that violence in schools is out of control or increasing. Incidents of critical and deadly violence remain a relatively small proportion of school disruptions, and the data have consistently indicated that school violence and disruption have remained stable, or even decreased somewhat, since approximately 1985.
ASSUMPTION #2: Through the provision of mandated punishment for certain offenses, zero tolerance increases the consistency of school discipline and thereby the clarity of the disciplinary message to students.
REALITY: Consistency, often defined as treatment integrity or fidelity, is an important criterion in the implementation of any behavioral intervention. There is no evidence, however, that zero tolerance has increased the consistency of school discipline. Rates of suspension and expulsion vary widely across schools and school districts and this variation appears to be due as much to characteristics of schools and school personnel (e.g., disciplinary philosophy, quality of school governance) as to the behavior or attitudes of students.
ASSUMPTION #3: Removal of students who violate school rules will create a school climate more conducive to learning for those students who remain.
REALITY: Although the assumption is strongly intuitive, data on a number of indicators of school climate have shown the opposite effect; that is, that schools with higher rates of school suspension and expulsion appear to have less satisfactory ratings of school climate and less satisfactory school governance structures, and to spend a disproportionate amount of time on disciplinary matters. Perhaps more importantly, recent research indicates a negative relationship between the use of school suspension and expulsion and schoolwide academic achievement, even when controlling for demographics such as socioeconomic status.
Although such findings do not demonstrate causality, it becomes difficult to argue that zero tolerance creates more positive school climates when its use is associated with more negative achievement outcomes.
ASSUMPTION #4: The swift and certain punishments of zero tolerance have a deterrent effect upon students, thus improving overall student behavior and discipline.
REALITY: 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. In the long term, school suspension and expulsion are moderately associated with a higher likelihood of school dropout and failure to graduate on time.
ASSUMPTION #5: Parents overwhelmingly support the implementation of zero tolerance policies to ensure the safety of schools, and students feel safer knowing that transgressions will be dealt with in no uncertain terms.
REALITY: The data regarding this assumption are mixed and inconclusive. Media accounts and some survey results suggest that parents and the community react strongly in favor of increased disciplinary punishments if they fear that their children’s safety is at stake. On the other hand, communities surrounding schools often react highly negatively if they perceive that students’ right to an education is being threatened. Although some students appear to make use of suspension or expulsion as an opportunity to examine their own behavior, the available evidence also suggests that students in general regard school suspension and expulsion as ineffective and unfair.
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