Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline Policies
In the aftermath of a number of high profile, extremely violent incidents at public schools, many state and local education entities have adopted the same harsh and mandatory, "take-no-prisoners" approach to discipline currently being used in this country’s criminal justice system.
Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline, is the culmination of the shared efforts of The Civil Rights Project (CRP) at Harvard University and the Advancement Project (AP). By consulting with attorneys, psychiatrists, academians, educators, and children’s advocates, CRP and AP embarked upon a multi-disciplined approach to review this subject matter. This is the first comprehensive national report to scrutinize the impact that the brutally strict Zero Tolerance approach to discipline, currently being used in public schools, is having on American children. The report illustrates that Zero Tolerance is unfair, is contrary to the developmental needs of children, denies children educational opportunities, and often results in the criminalization of children.
Take No Prisoners Discipline
This report documents the over-zealous approach to promoting safety being assimilated in public schools in many districts across the country. Principals and administrators are no longer using literal interpretations of their state’s and district’s Zero Tolerance policies, and they are no longer willing to use the discretionary clauses found in many of these provisions. Instead, they are inventing highly creative interpretations of the ill-conceived laws and using them to suspend and expel children based on relatively minor, non-violent offenses. In 1998, more than 3.1 million children in America were suspended and another 87,000 were expelled.
A great deal of statistical and anecdotal evidence supports the conclusion that children are being unfairly suspended and arbitrarily kicked out of school for incidents that could have been very easily handled using alternative methods. As a result, everyday Zero Tolerance Policies force children to be suspended or expelled for sharing Midol, asthma medication (during an emergency), cough drops, and for bringing toy guns, nail clippers, and scissors to school. Even the common schoolyard scuffle has become a target, regardless of severity and circumstances.
Zero Tolerance Policies Disproportionally Impact Minority Children and Children with Disabilities
Decades of research has shown that students of color are disproportionately disciplined in school. The evidence is highly suggestive of discrimination. Instead of trying to speculate on the motives responsible for this alarming trend, this report focuses on the fact, that for whatever reason, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s report, The Condition of Education 1997, 25% of all African American students, nationally, were suspended at least once over a four-year period. No matter how one may choose to attribute the causes, the numbers of students of color suspended and expelled is disturbing.
Based on the findings of a new report by Professor Russ Skiba, The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment, when all socio-economic indicators are held constant, African-American children are still suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students within the same schools. Moreover, the major use of the racial disparities appears to be higher rates of referral of black students for subjective offenses, such as "disrespect."
Statewide data from South Carolina reveal a similar pattern. While black children represent only 42% of the public school enrollment, they constitute 61% of the children charged with a disciplinary code violation. African-American and white students have equal referral rates for weapons; white students have a much higher rate of referral for illegal drugs; and African Americans are referred at much higher rates for subjective offenses, such as "disturbing schools." While Title VI of the Civil rights Acts of 1964, proscribes both intentional discrimination and policies which produce an adverse racial impact and are not justified as "educationally necessary," it has been largely ineffective and rarely enforced.
Furthermore, the amended Individuals with Disabilities Education Act provides extensive procedural protections for children with disabilities. These provisions were meant to ensure, that under the appropriate circumstances, the impact of their disabilities are taken into considered when meting out punishments. It is clear that in many circumstances, school officials are ignoring the law and that parents and students are probably unaware of their rights or unable to enforce them.
Psychological Impact of Exclusionary Disciplinary Policies: A Developmental Perspective
Zero Tolerance policies, by their nature, do not provide guidance and/or instruction. Frequently, because these policies focus directly on harsh forms of punishment, which are inherently unjust, they breed distrust in students toward adults, and nurture an adversarial, confrontational attitude.
One of the developmental needs of school-aged children, which many leading psychologists believe must be met, is their need to develop strong, trusting relationships with key adults in their lives, particularly those in their school. Zero Tolerance Policies foster an environment where there are no opportunities to bond with adults and provide troubled students with an unlimited amount of unsupervised free time. It is during this time that some experts believe, " . . . suspensions may simply accelerate the course of delinquency by providing a troubled youth with little parental supervision and more opportunities to socialize with deviant peers."
Additionally, it is essential for children to form positive attitudes toward fairness and justice. By subjecting students to automatic punishments that do not take into account extenuating or mitigating circumstances, zero tolerance policies take a "do as I say, not as I do," approach to discipline. Students are taught that adults are not being sincere when they speak of the need for justice and fairness, then, do not take those elements into consideration when the child’s punishment is callously and subjectively meted out.
Zero Tolerance: Is it worth it?
Students who are suspended suffer academically. In most instances they receive failing grades or do not have opportunities to make up missed schoolwork. They fall irretrievably behind, and there is a moderate to strong indication that they will eventually dropout of school. More than 30% of sophomores who drop out have been suspended and that high school dropouts are more likely to be incarcerated.
Only 26 states require alternative education assignments for students suspended or expelled. Anecdotal evidence illustrates that many of these schools fail to provided an adequate education. There is little data revealing the quality of the instruction that occurs in these centers or if any is given at all.
As a result of Zero Tolerance Policies, children are being increasingly subjected to criminal or juvenile delinquency charges. Actions that were once considered non-violent, childhood pranks have resulted in five young men being charged with felony assault for throwing peanuts, two ten year old boys facing felony charges for putting soap in a teacher’s water, and an 11 year-old girl being arrested and dragged away in a police car for bringing a plastic knife to school in her lunch box to cut her chicken. Forty-one states require schools to report students to law enforcement agencies for various conduct committed in school. Some of these referrals, specifically in Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi have resulted in students being fined $150-$500, given 6 months to 1 year probation, placed on curfew, and/or being required to perform 40-80 hours of community service.
Case Studies Illustrating The Philosophy of Zero Tolerance
Federal and state disciplinary laws permit school officials to use their discretion when doling out punishments. How principals choose to exercise that discretion determines both the extent to which Zero Tolerance will be used, and subsequently, the rate at which children either will be allowed to take advantage of educational opportunities, suspended, or expelled. The various philosophies used by different principals in four Miami Dade County Middle schools were examined for this section. The suspension rates of these schools ranged from below 2% to more than 42%. More than 75% of the students at three of the schools receive free or reduce school lunches; the rate at the fourth is 22%.
In schools where the principal has set the standard that no child should be suspended, except under extreme circumstances, teachers are less apt to refer a child for suspension for minor misconduct. Under these circumstances, teachers understand that their recommendations for suspensions are unlikely to be upheld by the principal. These schools also exhibit the most positive learning environment. In contrast, where the principal believes in strict, harsh discipline, the number of suspensions and expulsions reflects this philosophy.
Almost all the administrators agreed that if students are academically challenged, they are less likely to engage in disruptive behavior in the classroom. One principal asserted, "if teachers would learn how to teach," suspension rates would be lower. A teacher in another school stated, "if you keep them busy, they're good." In fact, even the brightest students, one principal explained, get into trouble when they get bored. Thus, in schools that lack resources such as highly qualified teachers, textbooks and other instructional materials, computers and other resources, it is probable that students may be more prone to engage in misconduct. Additionally, many administrators complained that more counselors are needed.
The case studies found general consensus that teachers need to be trained in classroom management and conflict resolution. Because teachers are the first link in the disciplinary process, they should be better equipped to deal with behavioral problems using innovative strategies that do not shut out students for typical adolescent misbehavior. Of the four schools studied, only one provides this type of professional development training.
Finally, the case investigations suggest that schools should monitor disciplinary referrals by teachers to ensure fair application of disciplinary codes. Monitoring may expose problems such as poor classroom management, discriminatory treatment, or singling out of particular children. Where teachers overuse disciplinary referrals, additional training should be provided. As a result, students will not be singled out, and they will ultimately have faith that the system of punishment is just.
Bucking the Trend: Schools That Reach Out Instead of Push Out
With the increasing use of suspension and expulsions, some schools are defying the status quo. Three organizations, the Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice of the American Institute of Research, the Justice Matters Institute, and Milwaukee Catalyst/Design for Change, have all published reports on how a number of schools are finding that it is possible to have achievement, safety and a low number of disciplinary referrals.
Essential elements of these schools include positive approaches to discipline, opportunities for teachers and students to bond, training for teachers classroom management techniques, clearly understood codes of conduct and discipline focused on prevention of problems. However, the work involved in successfully transforming a school’s culture is a daunting task that requires a steadfast commitment from the principal, teachers, staff, parents and community. To achieve this transformation, adults must analyze their own behaviors as well as the behaviors of their students, and be open to changing practices that may no longer fit with the school’s overall mission.
While these schools do not provide any magic formulas, they do offer hopeful blueprints for how progress in this direction can be made. Their experiences, along with those of other schools undergoing similar transformations, can be tremendously instrumental in helping other school and communities in their efforts to achieve similar goals.
In compliance with the UC Open Access Policy, this report has been made available on eScholarship: