Zero-tolerance still in use despite lack of evidence

After the examOriginally intended for serious offenses such as possession of firearms and drugs, zero-tolerance policies are popular with schools for addressing fighting, disrespect and other issues.

But, a recent article in Preventing School Failure challenges the use of these policies, saying not only are they subject to abuse but there is little research to back up the practice. Researcher Stephanie Martinez says the only data on the effectiveness of zero- tolerance policies are data indicating an increase in the number of days students are suspended from school.

“Because zero-tolerance policies have been in effect in schools for more than 16 years, there should be a wealth of evidence for the effectiveness of the policies in curbing violence and discipline problems on U.S. school campuses,” Martinez writes. “Surprisingly, school administrators are continuing to use these policies despite little research to support their effectiveness, relying on a perception that these policies make students feel safer and result in an improvement in behavior.”

Zero-tolerance policies were the brainchild of the U.S. Customs Agency in its battle against the booming drug trade, the author says. When the Clinton administration passed the Gun-Free Schools Act, schools were required to institute a zero-tolerance policy for students. Ironically, as schools were implementing zero-tolerance policies, Martinez says, the U.S. Customs Agency started phasing out the use of this policy. In February 2001, the American Bar Association recommended discontinuation of zero-tolerance policies in schools, she adds.

Almost as much as stories of school violence, the media has reported on the misuse and abuse of zero-tolerance policies. The following are examples of students who were subject to these policies, according to several research studies: a 12-year-old student who used a Swiss army knife to clean fingernails; a 5-year student carrying a plastic axe as part of a Halloween costume; a student using a plastic knife to cut a piece of chicken at lunch; students who threw snowballs, had water pistols and kicked other students.

Martinez also points out that zero-tolerance policies lead to abuse and overuse of suspension by administrators. A tremendous amount of research has found that suspension is disproportionately applied to certain subgroups of students. Other researchers have demonstrated that when suspended students return to school they display the same behaviors or more severe behaviors.

If zero tolerance was truly effective, she writes, we would see a reduction in the use of suspension rather than its increasing use. One solution to the overuse of suspension is to have a graduated system of discipline in which school administrators are required to provide punishment.

“The best interventions take an early intervention approach–which may include screening and early identification–and try to prevent behaviors from happening in the first place,” Martinez writes.

On the school level, school administrators who have implemented Positive Behavior support have seen positive outcomes regarding discipline. At the classroom level, there are many social-emotional curricula and interventions that teachers can use to prevent behaviors targeted by zero-tolerance policies. Among such programs are Second Step and Promoting Positive Thinking.

Based on previous research, 3 classroom indicators of decreased behavioral problems are

  • Teachers who are able and willing to deal with behavioral problems
  • effective and stimulating lessons, and
  • teachers who have high expectations.

Other preventative measures teachers can take are: focusing on anti-bullying, anger management, peer mediation and conflict resolution; developing rapport with students; mentoring students; developing cultural competence and being a role model.

“A System Gone Berserk: How Are Zero-Tolerance Policies Really Affecting Schools?” by Stephanie Martinez, Preventing School Failure, Volume 53, Number 3, 2009, pps. 153-157.

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