The tough disciplinary policy in Fairfax County public schools is not one of “zero tolerance,” officials there say. But it is a fine imitation of one, which is why it’s a good thing that Superintendent Jack D. Dale is now seeking changes to increase transparency disciplinary proceedings and to give principals more leeway in deciding penalties.

The Fairfax Board of Education on Monday will discuss the proposed changes, initiated after my colleague Donna St. George chronicled two disciplinary cases that were unduly harsh. One involved a girl forced out of her public school because she had prescription acne medicine in her locker; the other, a 15-year-old football player who took his own life after the fallout of an infraction.

But there are more than 600 students caught up in the system every year, and Dale said the changes -- which include recording disciplinary hearings and speeding up the process -- are “appropriate.”

Though the vast majority of school districts are believed to have policies labeled zero-tolerance, there is no consensus definition of zero tolerance, though they have in common the application of most often punitive predetermined consequences for behaviors without any consideration of mitigating circumstances.

The underlying theories are that predetermined penalties will serve as a deterrent. In fact, a task force created by the American Psychological Association to research the effectiveness of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies concluded in a 2008 paper that five myths underlie zero tolerance policies:

Myth 1 -- School violence is at a crisis level, demanding tough violence prevention strategies. (Data doesn’t support this.)

Myth 2 -- Mandated punishment for specific offenses increases the consistency of school discipline and the clarity of the message to students. (There is no evidence it has.)

Myth 3 -- Removal of rule violators creates a climate more conducive to learning for kids who remain. (The assumption is intuitive but data on school climate have shown the opposite effect.)

Myth 4 -- Zero tolerance policies have a deterrent effect upon students. (Data shows the opposite is true.)

Myth 5 -- Most parents believe zero tolerance policies ensure safe schools, and students feel safer. (The data are mixed and inconclusive.)

Such policies rarely if ever provide the kind of justice for which people yearn. Those who think such an approach works should ask themselves if they would think the same if it were their child caught up in such a disciplinary system.


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