Data collected by the American Educational Research Association from schools with zero-tolerance policies reveals that the majority of zero-tolerance offenses involve drugs, and that ninth-graders are three times more likely to commit an offense than older students. Gerald Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, asserts that while zero tolerance is meant to protect law-abiding students and staff members by removing dangerous students easily and quickly, it has other unintended effects.
Suspensions and expulsions are disproportionately applied to racial minority and low-income students. These students are suspended or expelled for nonviolent and subjectively defined offenses. Thus the policy ends up punishing children who are “often frightened, sometimes thoughtless, but rarely dangerous.”
Zero tolerance policies often implemented haphazardly
Zero tolerance is now the rule in more than 80 percent of the nation’s schools. Research indicates that such policies are often implemented haphazardly and fail to achieve the major goals of improving students’ behavior and ensuring their safety.
In the years since schools adopted zero-tolerance policies, the increase in offenses has risen 10 times faster than the increase in student population. A successful policy should result in yearly decreases in violations. One consequence of zero-tolerance policies can be the loss of positive relationships between students and staff. Zero tolerance fails to teach students traits such as understanding, kindness, generosity, benevolence and justice.
Opponents of zero tolerance recommend that schools allow students who have committed minor infractions to “grow beyond their transgressions” in an environment that emphasizes fair treatment and opportunities to change for the better. In addition to discipline, Tirozzi suggests that schools need a cautious and balanced approach to safety. A lawyer with the Education Law Center in Newark, New Jersey, recommends a comprehensive approach that includes:
- a challenging and engaging academic program for all students
- fair treatment and due-process protection
- graduated sanctions for violations
- staff modeling of nonviolent, respectful behavior
- effective communication of rules
- prompt and accurate reporting of serious offenses to parents and police
- classroom management training for teachers
- anger management and conflict resolution for students
- counseling for at-risk and troubled students and their families
- alternative education for students who pose a threat to others’ safety, and
- parent partnerships and community liaisons with law enforcement.
Many of the schools that have adopted these more comprehensive safety and discipline policies report that their suspension rates drop sharply. Dropout rates and classroom disruptions also decline, while student achievement increases.
Opponents assert that zero-tolerance policies aren’t needed to “remove dangerous and overly disruptive students” from school. Even without such policies, schools have the legal right to remove students who carry weapons, sell or use illegal drugs or commit assault. Schools are advised to have procedural protections in place that guarantee students due process. In addition, schools need to know that special education students have additional rights that may prohibit or limit suspension or expulsion under zero-tolerance policies.
“Beyond Zero Tolerance”, American School Board Journal, Volume 32, Number 4, September 2004, pp. 62-64.
Published in ERN November/December 2004 Volume 17 Number 8