In Decatur, Ill., a federal court has rejected the suit of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH on behalf of six black students expelled for a football-game brawl. The case has intensified national discussion concerning zero tolerance school discipline.
The pervasive fear created by a string of tragic school shootings has left both schools and society more receptive than ever to tough talk. Zero tolerance has gained wide popularity for its promise of a no-nonsense solution to a difficult problem. But how well does zero tolerance really work?
The term was first adopted by the Reagan administration, taken from a San Diego program that impounded any seagoing vessel for even trace amounts of drugs. Treating drug-runners and water skiers equally severely, the policy's intent was to send a clear message to dealers and users alike. Controversial from the first, the boat impoundment policy was quietly phased out after a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute research vessel was seized for traces of marijuana found in a crewman's cabin.
But the term quickly caught on among educators concerned about a near epidemic of youth violence. Beginning in 1988, school boards across the country adopted zero tolerance policies for everything from gang clothing to drugs to boom boxes. In 1994 President Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act, mandating a one-year expulsion for weapons in school.
As with zero tolerance drug policy, however, get-tough disciplinary measures led to controversy. Some districts reported increases in weapons confiscated. Yet strict zero tolerance has also resulted in numerous cases of suspension or expulsion for everything from nail files to paper clips, Midol to cough drops. Protests seem to flare most often in districts that insist on stiff, unyielding penalties without opportunity for review.
As Decatur highlighted, racial issues play a part in the zero tolerance debate. African American students are suspended two to three times as frequently as white students, and represent an even greater share of expulsions. Research shows that although black students do not misbehave significantly more than other students, they are frequently punished more severely for less serious offenses.
One of the lessons learned from Columbine is that school alienation can be deadly. Yet the primary purpose of suspension and expulsion is to disconnect troublemakers from school. We know little about the short-term effects of school suspension, but in the long-term, suspension is moderately correlated with dropping out of school. It is not surprising that many police departments have become disillusioned with zero tolerance school discipline. As school suspensions and expulsions multiply, so does crime in the community.
The zero tolerance mentality has brought a sharp increase in school security technology: metal detectors and video surveillance. After 10 years, however, there is virtually no evidence that security technology or personnel have increased school safety. Of the handful of published evaluations of school security measures, none is of sufficient quality to show that security measures substantially affect school safety. In fact, some researchers argue that overreliance on school security measures and zero tolerance contributes to a cycle of fear and violence, creating a climate more conducive to violence.
There can be no doubt that schools need effective responses to disruption and incivility--harassment, verbal abuse, threats--before minor incidents escalate into serious violence. Yet the Draconian responses of zero tolerance yield a seemingly endless spiral of punishment. If a child with a toy cap gun is expelled for a year, then we are almost forced to respond to truly dangerous events and real weapons with two-year, three-year, perhaps permanent expulsions.
As an alternative, many schools are beginning to consider more moderate policies, under which the punishment fits the crime, and to develop preventive plans for school safety. School violence experts consistently emphasize comprehensive and careful planning as the best path to safe schools.
The solution to the problem of school violence will be found not in reflexively kicking more students out but rather in learning why some adolescents become alienated and dangerous, and what we must do to better include, involve and reconnect troubled youth in our schools.
The writer is a professor in the School of Education at Indiana University. He was a member of the team that prepared the president's guide to school safety, "Early Warning, Timely Response."