My guest is Sean Slade, director of Healthy School Communities at ASCD, a global association empowering educators to support the success of each learner.

By Sean Slade

There has been a lot of talk recently about zero tolerance and the unintended affects of this largely symbolic — at least in terms of it being a deterrent — policy as it applies to schools. Many have been more than happy to tout the policy as an over-arching solution and require their schools to impose strident, one-size-fits-all, and punitive consequences to issues that are often shades of gray, circumstantial, or reactive to the individual’s environment.

Donna St. George’s recent story in The Washington Post outlines some of the more absurd ways the zero tolerance policy has been applied in Fairfax County (where the school board recently just agreed to make some changes to the disciplinary code).

Zero tolerance policies are really nothing more than the rhetorical appearance of toughness. They are less tough to implement than policies that are better thought out and that are fair.

For example, a child comes to school in possession of an illicit substance or drug. Suspension quickly follows in the majority of districts, but in those with a zero-tolerance policy, the student is automatically suspended from school— not to get counseling but because the action is deemed deviant behavior and the individual must therefore be punished.

Even if counseling were part of the punitive process, which it most often isn’t, no school counselors are available to help.

The average counselor-to-student ratio in the District of Columbia, for example, is 275:1. In Virginia it’s 308:1. The best is Wyoming at 197:1, and the worst is the formerly great education state of California with 814:1.

Not every school has a zero-tolerance policy, though, and not every district, state, or country takes this non-counseling approach. Many counties around the nation’s capital — such as Prince George’s, Arlington, and Montgomery — have abandoned these ineffective and often detrimental policies.

As St. George pointed out, Indiana implemented a new law that “requires school systems to create plans to modernize school discipline, with positive-behavior support and a review of zero-tolerance.” Similar actions are taking place in Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Denver.

Other countries — and often the ones we hear about with regard to high academic achievement — have a markedly different approach to discipline and counseling and their roles in the learning process.

In Australia, schools are considered the safest place for students to be, and therefore when an incident occurs the aim is to always try to get the child back into the school wherever possible. Suspension occurs not as a punishment but to provide time to establish counseling. Once counseling has been established, the next focus is on getting the child back into the school and the education process.

As is stated in Suspension and Expulsion of School Students—Procedures from the Student Welfare Directorate :

Suspension is not intended as a punishment. It is only one strategy for managing inappropriate behaviour within a school’s student welfare and discipline policies. It is most effective when it highlights the parents’ responsibility for taking an active role, in partnership with the school, to modify the inappropriate behaviour of their child. The school and the government school system will work with parents with a view to assisting a suspended student to rejoin the school community as quickly as possible. Suspension also allows time for school personnel to plan appropriate support for the student to assist with successful re-entry.

In Canada, the Student Welfare Code of Conduct for each province is linked back to the Human Rights Code. What this means is that any suspension must take the Human Rights Code into account; for example:

The Human Rights Code of Ontario has primacy over provincial legislation and school board policies and procedures, such that the Education Act, regulations, Ministry of Education Program Policy Memoranda, and Board policies and procedures are subject to, and shall be interpreted and applied in accordance with the Human Rights Code of Ontario.

Disciplinary actions “that are solely punitive” or that use “exclusion as a disciplinary measure” are not supported:

Schools are encouraged to implement proactive positive practices and corrective supportive practices when necessary. However, before applying disciplinary measures, the principal/designate and Discipline Committee of the Board shall consider the discriminatory impacts of disciplinary decisions on pupils protected by the Human Rights Code, including but not limited to race and disability, and whether or not accommodation is required.

What is crucial in this debate about the value of zero-tolerance policies, however, is not so much zero tolerance itself, but rather the philosophy behind such a policy. It’s a philosophy that says that it is acceptable to ask no questions, make no judgment calls, and see no gray areas. It’s a philosophy that sees counseling as superfluous – and perhaps even counterproductive – to the punishment. The more important question here is: Why do we deem it acceptable for students to be suspended and no subsequent counseling to take place or be required?

As we state here at ASCD, “As supporters of the Whole Child Initiative, we understand that students’ basic physiological and psychological needs must be satisfied before they can fully engage in learning, relationships, and community… An investment in school counselors, psychologists, and social workers is an investment in student academic achievement and social well-being.”


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