Reevaluating Zero-Tolerance Approaches
The Washington Post recently featured an article by Donna St. George that discusses the trend to reevaluate zero tolerance approaches in school discipline. Zero-tolerance policies enacting severe punishments for offenses related to weapons, drugs, and behavioral issues caught on among schools in the early 1990s—aided by federal legislation through the Gun-Free Schools Act that requires students who bring guns to school be expelled, and intensified after the school shooting at Columbine High School. The article summarizes that “over the years, ‘zero-tolerance’ has described discipline policies that impose automatic consequences for offenses, regardless of context. The term also has come to refer to severe punishments for relatively minor infractions.”
Though this approach is still commonly implemented, there is evidence that it can be ineffectual, misapplied, and even counter-productive, leading a growing number of educators and elected officials to scale back on implementation. A University of Virginia education professor (Dewey Cornell) interviewed for the article claims that suspension and expulsion—common punishments in zero-tolerance policies—do not improve student behavior or lead to meaningful change, as many assume. Similarly, former West Virginia governor and president of Alliance for Excellent Education Bob Wise said, “[I]t’s become evident that simply suspending students and putting them on the street comes back and bites you.” Indeed, it seems increasingly clear that it’s high time for a reevaluation of this approach.
St. George goes on to quote one school board member saying things can devolve into “zero-tolerance gone wild,” and the article provides various examples of extreme-sounding cases of zero-tolerance enforcement (a high school lacrosse player handcuffed and suspended for having a pocketknife that he said was for fixing lacrosse sticks; a teenager expelled for blowing plastic pellets through a tube at classmates; the suspension of a 6 year-old with a camping utensil that included a knife; a middle school student suspended for having acne medication). Indeed, zero tolerance often extends beyond highly threatening behavior to issues like attendance and tardiness, teasing, and sharing a cough drop.
Due in part to scenarios like these, some states and districts are reexamining their zero-tolerance approaches, including Delaware, Indiana, Denver, Wake County (NC), Baltimore, and Northern Virginia. One type of revision gives administrators the flexibility to consider the context of infractions, including factors like the student’s age and intent, and the risk level of the situation. As a result, the number of suspensions in many of these areas is decreasing significantly.
Regarding revision of the punishments applied, the article outlines some alternative approaches that are increasingly popular. One is called positive behavior support, and requires that teachers use specific methods to encourage good behavior and intervene with bad behavior (which essentially boils down to rewarding the good, and hoping to prevent the bad). The article says that 14,000 schools throughout the nation practice this approach (based on information outside of the article, it sounds as if the results are mixed). Other schools are still largely punishment-geared, but are trying to emphasize a wider range of consequences, rather than relying so frequently on suspension and expulsion. A list of various alternatives to zero tolerance is here.
Zero tolerance is clearly a divisive issue, and many other regions and schools continue to argue that it is a good strategy—in fact the article indicates that some places just apply zero tolerance harder when it’s not working.
In an EducationNews article also from this week, education writer Michael Shaughnessy featured an interview that contrasts approaches that place students “in a structured program that will hopefully address some of the behavioral issues that got them expelled” (and she says there are both good and “not-so-good” programs that aim to do this) and approaches that simply expel students to the unsupervised streets, which “just transfers a problem from the school to the community.”
Further, as some of the examples cited imply, she says that zero-tolerance policies are often inconsistently understood and implemented, and so can result in extreme repercussions for a minor conduct problem.
The Washington Post article cites a 2008 American Psychological Association journal article that found no evidence that zero-tolerance policies deter bad behavior or that they keep schools safer. Further, according to the National Association of School Psychologists there is research indicating that zero-tolerance policies are related to lower academic performance, higher drop-out rates, and later graduation.
The LFA advocates for rigorous, pragmatic, research-based policies within the school system, and appropriate response to behavioral issues is a prime example of the significance of this sort of approach. Let’s hope that as schools and regions consider their policies, they will come up with solutions that foster student achievement as well as keeping schools safe.
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- Best Selling Author Dan Ariely
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The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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