Zero tolerance programs in the public schools have often been criticized for being overly harsh and punitive in nature. Critics contend that these policies are often administered in an arbitrary manner. An emerging body of literature indicates that this policy is wholly without empirically-validated support, and that scientific reviews have found no evidence whatsoever that zero tolerance prevents school violence. Critics also contend that minorities are disproportionately impacted by zero tolerance policies, much to their long-term detriment. Recent studies would bear these contentions out. Find here an introduction to the most current research in the field.
A new report was released by the Advancement Project on January 20, 2010. The report, entitled “Test, Punish, and Push Out: How Zero Tolerance and High-Stakes Testing Funnel Youth into the School to Prison Pipeline,” provides an overview of zero-tolerance school discipline and high-stakes testing; how they relate to each other; how laws and policies such as the No Child Left Behind Act have made school discipline even more punitive; and, the risk faced if these devastating policies are not reformed.
The report explores:
- The common origins and ideological roots of zero tolerance and high-stakes testing;
- The current state of zero-tolerance school discipline across the country, including local, state, and national data;
- How high-stakes testing affects students, educators, and schools;
- How zero tolerance and high-stakes testing have become mutually reinforcing, combining to push huge numbers of students out of school; and
- Successful grassroots efforts to eliminate harmful discipline and testing practices.
The report followed on the heels of a collaborative effort between the Advancement Project and Youth United for Change, a Philadelphia-based youth organization. Together they released Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia: Denying Educational Opportunities and Creating a Pathway to Prison on January 13, 2011.
The study “criticizes zero tolerance in Philadelphia schools as a failed policy that makes city schools less safe, criminalizes or pushes out of school tens of thousands of students every year, and creates a School-to-Prison Pipeline,” the summary explains.
Among the most startling findings in the report are that Philadelphia’s arrest rate was up to 25 times higher than some of the other large districts in the state. In fact, one single high school in Philadelphia had more arrests in 2008-09 than 17 of the other 19 largest school districts in the state.
According to the data, Philadelphia schools are punishing the same behavior far more harshly than it did just a few years ago, and also appear to be criminalizing its students far more often than other Pennsylvania school districts for the same behaviors.
Philadelphia’s school security force is almost three times larger than that of the 19 other districts combined, despite a far lower student enrollment. And, the number of expulsions has skyrocketed in recent years, and nearly all of the students expelled in 2008-09 were between the ages of 8 and 14, with the most common ages of the expelled students being 11 and 12.
Black and Latino students are far more likely to be suspended, transferred to alternative schools, and arrested than White students, and the data suggests that students of color are being punished more harshly than their peers for the same behavior.
There are strong negative relationships between the use of exclusionary discipline and both graduation rates and academic achievement rates, meaning that schools with high suspension and arrest rates are far more likely to have low graduation rates and low achievement levels. Charter schools in Philadelphia appear to have disciplinary practices that are as harsh, or even harsher, than traditional public schools.
Among some other reports by the Advancement Project is Derailed: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track. This report, issued on May 14, 2003, was hailed as “a first-of-its-kind report that looks at how zero-tolerance policies are derailing students from an academic track in schools to a future in the juvenile justice system.”
According to the report, in the mid 1980s, a spike in juvenile crime rates gave birth to the “superpredator” theory which held that America was under assault by a generation of brutally amoral young people, and that only the abandonment of “soft” educational and rehabilitative approaches, in favor of strict and unrelenting discipline – a zero tolerance approach – could end the plague.
“In school district after school district, an inflexible and unthinking zero tolerance approach to an exaggerated juvenile crime problem is derailing the educational process,” said Judith Browne, Advancement Project senior attorney.
“The educational system is starting to look more like the criminal justice system. Acts once handled by a principal or a parent are now being handled by prosecutors and the police.”
Another Advancement Project report – written in collaboration with the Civil Right's Project at Harvard University – “examines the devastating consequences of zero tolerance policies and school discipline. The report illustrates that Zero Tolerance is unfair, is contrary to the developmental needs of children and denies children educational opportunities.” The report, entitled Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero-Tolerance and School Discipline was released in June 2000.
Appleseed is a non-profit network consisting of sixteen public interest justice centers in the United States and Mexico. Appleseed “is dedicated to building a society in which opportunities are genuine, access to the law is universal and equal, and government advances the public interest,” according to the organization’s national web site.
Working with its’ huge pro bono network, Appleseed seeks to “identify and examine social injustices, make specific recommendations, and advocate for effective solutions to deep-seated structural problems.”
A report entitled Texas’ School-to-Prison Pipeline: School Expulsion was issued by Texas Appleseed in April 2010. The report revealed “that a disproportionate share of minority and special education students are being expelled from Texas public schools for non-criminal, non-violent offenses.” Being expelled from school increases students’ chances of dropping out or becoming involved in the juvenile justice system, the information page about the Texas’ School-to-Prison Pipeline project explains.
The policy recommendations include one that is often-repeated throughout the growing body of literature on zero tolerance policies in the schools: “Develop, implement, and regularly evaluate a school-wide disciplinary plan that employs research-based strategies that have been shown to reduce the number of disciplinary referrals.”
Among the report’s conclusions: “Our findings underscore the importance of Texas school districts utilizing more effective, research-based strategies to improve student behavior, reduce school dropouts, and help stem the growth of Texas’ prison system – the largest in the nation. A survey of current research in the field suggests this can be done while maintaining safe schools and classrooms where teachers can teach and students can learn.”
Massachusetts Appleseed has a signature project called Keep Kids In Class, through which it “seeks to mitigate the effects of elementary and secondary school disciplinary proceedings on the increasing rates of dropouts and juvenile delinquency,” the project page explains. The organization provides an eye-opening executive summary of its findings on zero tolerance entitled Keep Kids In Class: Breaking the School to Prison Pipeline.
“Zero tolerance is a punitive and exclusionary attitude towards school discipline. Zero tolerance in education evolved from policies developed by federal and state drug enforcement agencies in the 1980s as part of a ‘get tough on crime’ mentality. Although the zero tolerance mantra was eventually phased out of federal and state drug enforcement agencies as being too inflexible, and therefore unworkable, Congress and state legislatures continue to implement the zero tolerance policy in public schools,” the summary explains.
Connecticut Appleseed also has such a project. Connecticut Appleseed released some preliminary findings of the project in an executive summary entitled Keep Kids in School: Improving School Discipline in February, 2010. It offers a sampling of “best practices” in school discipline based on extensive interviews in 9 diverse Connecticut school districts.
Georgia Appleseed has a similar project, Effective Student Discipline: Keeping Kids in Class. Links to a comprehensive report on zero tolerance released in June 2010 are to be found there.
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA
The Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law released a comprehensive study on zero tolerance policies entitled School-Based Restorative Justice as an Alternative to Zero-Tolerance Policies: Lessons from West Oakland in December 2010.
Mary Louise Frampton, faculty director of the Henderson Center, said restorative justice is far superior to zero-tolerance policies in schools.
“Zero-tolerance policies fail our young people,” said Frampton. “Students are expelled or suspended for typical adolescent behavior: smoking, fighting, cursing, and acting out. Removing youngsters from school increases the risk that they will fall behind, lose faith in themselves, drop out and get into trouble. Restorative justice breaks that school-to-prison pipeline and keeps students in class—where they belong,” Newswise explains.
A local nonprofit, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, helped in developing the pilot program.
AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION
In 2006, the American Psychological Association adopted a resolution recommending ways to target discipline more effectively in order to keep schools safe while also eliminating the need for a one-size-fits-all punishment for misbehavior,” explains an APA press release.
The Association’s governing body, the Council of Representatives, commissioned the Zero Tolerance Task Force “to examine the research conducted to date on the effects zero tolerance policies have on children in schools.”
The task force reviewed the 10 years of research “to determine whether these policies have made schools safer without taking away students’ opportunity to learn; whether they incorporated children’s development as a factor in types of discipline administered; and whether educators referred juveniles to the justice system too often with costly consequences. Lastly, the review showed how families and communities are affected by these policies,” the release explains.
This effort ultimately culminated in a exhaustive 141-page report entitled Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations.
According to the report, schools are not any safer or more effective in disciplining children than before these zero tolerance policies were implemented in the mid 1980s. The research also shows that while school violence is a serious issue, violence in schools is “not out-of-control.”
The evidence suggests that zero tolerance policies do not increase the consistency of discipline in schools. According to the report, rates of suspension and expulsion in schools vary widely and can actually increase disciplinary action for those students who are temporarily withdrawn from school.
Schools with higher rates of suspensions and expulsions have a less than satisfactory rating of climate and governance and spend a disproportionate amount of time disciplining students.
The evidence also shows that zero tolerance policies have not been successful at decreasing racial biases in disciplining students. The report explains that a disproportionate number of students of color are still overrepresented in expulsions and suspensions, especially for African Americans but also for Latinos.
Based on research findings, the APA recommended the following changes to zero tolerance policies:
- Allow more flexibility with discipline and rely more on teachers’ and administrators’ expertise within their own school buildings.
- Have teachers and other professional staff be the first point of contact regarding discipline incidents.
- Use zero tolerance disciplinary removals for only the most serious and severe disruptive behaviors.
- Replace one-size-fits all discipline. Gear the discipline to the seriousness of the infraction.
- Require school police and related security officers to have training in adolescent development.
- Attempt to reconnect alienated youth or students who are at-risk for behavior problems or violence. Use threat assessment procedures to identify those at risk.
- Develop effective alternatives for learning for those students whose behavior threatens the discipline or safety of the school that result in keeping offenders in the educational system, but also keep other students and teachers safe.
NAACP LEGAL DEFENSE AND EDUCATIONAL FUND
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund published a report entitled Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline in 2006.
“In the last decade, the punitive and overzealous tools and approaches of the modern criminal justice system have seeped into our schools, serving to remove children from mainstream educational environments and funnel them onto a one-way path toward prison. These various policies, collectively referred to as the School-to-Prison Pipeline, push children out of school and hasten their entry into the juvenile, and eventually the criminal, justice system, where prison is the end of the road. Historical inequities, such as segregated education, concentrated poverty, and racial disparities in law enforcement, all feed the pipeline. The School-to-Prison Pipeline is one of the most urgent challenges in education today,” the NACCP explains in its summary of the report.
In examining the disparate impact that zero tolerance policies have on children of color, the NAACP explains:
What has been true in the criminal justice system is also true in the School-to-Prison Pipeline: African Americans, especially young black males, have felt the brunt of the dramatic policy shift away from education and towards incarceration. For example, in 2000, African Americans represented only 17% of public school enrollment nationwide, but accounted for 34% of suspensions. Likewise, in 2003, African-American youths made up 16% of the nation’s overall juvenile population but accounted for 45% of juvenile arrests. Moreover, studies show that African-American students are far more likely than their white peers to be suspended, expelled, or arrested for the same kind of conduct at school.
“In the long run, it will be necessary to address head-on the grave crisis and racial disparities in public education,” the report explains, concluding that: “While programs can be created to address some of the individual needs of students, it will take a true community reinvestment in our schools to give students the educational opportunities that will allow them to realize their potential. Instead of excluding so many children from educational opportunity, school systems must provide services in a manner consistent with the notion that every child can succeed. The goal of creating safe, sustainable school communities depends on it.”
JUSTICE POLICY INSTITUTE AND CHILDREN’S LAW CENTER
The Justice Policy Institute in Washington and the Kentucky-based Children’s Law Center produced a report, Unintended Consequences: The Impact of Zero Tolerance and other Exclusionary Policies on Kentucky Students, which found that African American youth are suspended two to seven times as frequently as white students for “board violations” such as “defiance of authority” or other class disturbances. The report found that there were 68,000 suspensions for school board violations in the 2000/01 school year alone. African-American students were also suspended two to 17 times as frequently as white students, depending on the school district, for “law violations” such as possession of drugs.
Contrary to common perception, the 2003 report found that violent crime was not the problem that it was said to be, and the majority of juvenile court referrals that stemmed from the schools did not, in the opinion of the expert panel, merit such referrals. As the report explained:
The data do not support the claim that violent juvenile crime is a serious problem in Kentucky’s public schools. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of referrals from schools to juvenile court are for the status offenses of truancy and being “beyond the reasonable control of the school.” Many other referrals include behavior that may be obnoxious and typically adolescent, but not dangerous. Referrals to court for weapons and firearms offenses are low. Most referrals for drug offenses are for minor possession charges. Referrals for alcohol offenses are also very low. Most reported “law violations” are not serious enough to warrant referral to court.
AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION
In February 2001, the American Bar Association adopted a resolution that “opposes, in principle, ‘zero tolerance’ policies that have a discriminatory effect, or mandate either expulsion or referral of students to juvenile or criminal court, without regard to the circumstances or nature of the offense or the student’s history.”
The ABA conducted a study of its own, and in its report, Zero Tolerance Policy, the ABA provided some anecdotal accounts of how zero tolerance policies were being applied in the field, among them:
Two 10-year-old boys from Arlington, Virginia were suspended for three days for putting soapy water in a teacher’s drink. At the teacher’s urging, police charged the boys with a felony that carried a maximum sentence of 20 years. The children were formally processed through the juvenile justice system before the case was dismissed months later.
In Denton County, Texas, a 13-year-old was asked to write a “scary” Halloween story for a class assignment. When the child wrote a story that talked about shooting up a school, he both received a passing grade by his teacher and was referred to the school principal’s office. The school officials called the police, and the child spent six days in jail before the courts confirmed that no crime had been committed.
The ABA report explained that: “Although few could quarrel with a policy of zero tolerance towards children who misbehave – adults who raise, teach or supervise children should react to misbehavior – their responses should be appropriate to the age, history and circumstances of the child as well as to the nature of the offense. Unfortunately, when it is examined closely, ‘zero tolerance’ turns out to have very little to do with zero tolerance, and everything to do with one-size-fits-all mandatory punishment.”
That school administrators are capable of injecting their individual belief systems into the zero sum equation is perhaps best illustrated by the peculiar case of a young girl who was suspended from Union Intermediate High School in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, for casting a “magic spell” on a teacher who had fallen ill.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of student Brandi Blackbear, charging that assistant principal Charlie Bushyhead suspended her for 15 days for supposedly casting the spell.
In its legal complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma, the ACLU said that school officials not only suspended Blackbear for 15 days in December 1999 for allegedly casting spells, but also violated her religious freedom when they told her that she could not wear or draw in school any symbols related to the Wicca religion, the ACLU of Oklahoma explains in its account of events.
The lawsuit also accused school officials “of violating the young woman’s due process rights when, in the spring of 1999, they suspended her for 19 days over the content of private writings taken from her book bag. Officials had searched her possessions based on a rumor that Blackbear was carrying a gun, although no weapon of any sort was ever found.”
Before these incidents, the ACLU explained, Brandi had no discipline problems and had a perfect attendance record. Since being accused, she had “suffered continuous ridicule and humiliation,” and “become an outcast among her fellow students,” according to the complaint. She had also fallen behind in her school work because of the suspensions.
From Education News arrives an article concerning an honor roll student who was expelled for shooting what amounted to a spit wad. High school freshman Andrew Mikel was been suspended for the school year, and placed in a “diversion program” by police for blowing soft plastic pellets through a pen at three classmates.
“In early December, my son shot what amounts to a spitwad. They classified the spit wad as a weapon, expelled my son from school the rest of the year, filed assault charges on him with the sheriff’s department, mandated that he take ‘substance-abuse counseling’ and ‘anger-management counseling’ and must do 24 hours of community service,” his father explained.
Originally suspended for 10 days after the December 10, 2010, incident, “Andrew later was suspended for the balance of the school year following a Dec. 21 hearing before the Spotsylvania County school board. His criminal charges will be expunged if he completes the diversion program for first-time offenders,” Education News explains.
Also from Education News is the recent story involving a family in Laval, Quebec, whose case “has sparked a fierce debate over how far schools should go to teach children about environmental responsibility after their six-year-old son was shut out of a kindergarten draw to win a stuffed animal because he had an environmentally unfriendly sandwich bag in his lunchbox.”
Through tears, the young boy told his parents that the school had held a draw to win a stuffed teddy bear and only children who didn’t have any plastic sandwich bags could enter,” the report explains. When the boy’s father questioned his son’s teacher, she confirmed that the school had staged the draw at a lunchtime daycare and that any student with a plastic sandwich bag was excluded.
“You know Mr. Lanciault, it’s not very good for the environment,” the teacher told him. “We have to take care of the our planet and the bags do not decompose well.”
A kindergarten teacher with an environmental orientation, and, zero tolerance for plastic lunch bags winding up in landfills – imagine that. And, imagine the mentality of a teacher that would take away a child’s teddy bear. While the teacher in this instance didn’t actually take a teddy bear, she did indeed take away the child’s chance of winning one, which to a youngster of those tender years is psychologically tantamount to much the same thing.
The zero tolerance policy in the schools far-too-often manifests itself in Kindergarten. Consider, for example, this startling case described in the NAACP study:
In April 2005, a five-year-old African-American girl attending kindergarten at a St. Petersburg, Florida elementary school was arrested, handcuffed and shackled by police officers, then confined to a police cruiser for three hours. Her so-called “crime” was not wielding a weapon or threatening to harm other children; she threw a temper tantrum. School officials responded by calling the police. The incident, which sparked international outrage, placed renewed focus on the practices of law enforcement officers in schools. Sadly, this was not an isolated incident; the same types of actions by school officials and law enforcement officers are replicated in school systems throughout Florida.
The problem is not limited to Florida. Indeed, it is national in scope. The 2000 study by the Advancement Project and The Civil Rights Project explains that: “A kindergarten boy in Pennsylvania was suspended for bringing a toy ax to school as part of his Halloween costume.”
Also from that same report: “A four-year-old African-American child was suspended for one day because he allegedly pushed and shoved his classmates on the playground. The kindergartner’s mother complained that she was not notified of this behavior and thus was not given an opportunity to correct his behavior.”
Insight on the News reported on another peculiar case involving kindergarteners: “A school in New Jersey suspended two kindergarten students after they played cops and robbers.”
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that: “A little boy in kindergarten hugs a girl too hard and quotes some lines from his favorite adventure movie. He is deemed a threat to the students and removed. Another 5-year-old boy carries a tiny pocket nail clipper with a penknife for peeling his snack-time apple and he is expelled as a threat.”
Or consider a more recent case involving a 5-year-old boy who was “handcuffed and hauled off to a psych ward for misbehaving in kindergarten,” as New York City’s Daily News reported.
“Rather than calling the boy’s parents, a school safety agent cuffed the boy’s small hands behind his back using metal restraints,” a school source said.
The agent and school officials then called an ambulance to take the tot to Elmhurst Hospital Center for a mental evaluation, the paper reports.
“He’s 5 years old. He was scared to death,” Dennis Rivera’s mother, Jasmina Vasquez, told the Daily News. “You cannot imagine what it’s done to him.”
RACIAL DISPARITIES IN PERSPECTIVE
To the last one, each study cited herein explores the racial disparities when it comes to the administration of zero tolerance policies, citing incredible statistics. But children – of whatever color they may be – are not mere statistics. Rather, they are very real human beings whose lives may well turn out to be adversely impacted over the longer term by these misguided policies.
The 2000 study by the Advancement Project and The Civil Rights Project illustrated this point with some examples drawn from the proverbial trenches:
A 4th grade ten-year-old African-American girl was charged with defiance of authority for failing to participate in a class assignment. She was suspended for three days. Soon thereafter, she was charged with “defiance of authority” for humming and tapping on her desk. She was again suspended for three days. She was subsequently suspended for five days for “defiance of authority” for talking back to her teacher and for “drug-related activity,” namely, wearing one pants leg up, although there was no indication of any drug involvement. She was recommended for alternative school. The alternative school could not accept her because the alternative education system provides instruction for grades 5-12 only. The School District promoted her, despite her failing grades, in order to get her out of the mainstream school. Requests for a due process hearing have been denied. (MS)
An African-American 9th grader was expelled for one year from a predominantly white school district and sent to an alternative school because she had sparklers in her book bag. She had used them over the weekend and forgot they were in her bag. (East Baton Rouge Parish, LA)
An African-American male 7th grader bet a schoolmate on the outcome of a school basketball game. The schoolmate, who lost the bet, accused the boy of threatening him for payment. The school district conducted no investigation and instead notified law enforcement officials. The 7th grader was charged with felony extortion and expelled. (San Francisco, CA)
A 10th grade honors student, who was President of the Black Student Union, was expelled for assaulting a teacher during a fight. The student had been continually harassed by a white student. On this occasion, the two girls argued and as the black student walked away, the white student hit the black student. A fight then ensued, and in attempting to break up the fight, a teacher was hit. Despite witness statements that the assault on the teacher was an accident, the black student was expelled. The student had never been suspended prior to this incident and had no record of behavioral problems. (Dublin, CA)
Five African-American female students, who were best friends, were suspended five days for fighting. Only two of the girls actually fought; the three others attempted to break up the fight. The five made-up later that day. In addition to the five day suspensions, three of them were kicked off the cheerleaders’ squad (and cannot try out again for 2 years), two were not permitted to play on the girls’ basketball team, and none were allowed to run for homecoming court. Further, after their suspensions were served, the girls were required to appear in Youth Court where they were fined $150 – $200, given 40 – 80 hours community service, placed on curfew for six months, and assigned to probation for one year. The girls had no prior suspensions or record of behavioral problems. (Prentiss, MS)
On his way to school, an African-American male (5th grader) was shown two razor blades by a classmate who stated that she planned to use the blades to hurt two girls who were bullying her. The male student took the blades from his classmate and hid them in order to prevent a potential tragedy. Another student notified school officials that the boy had hidden the blades. Although the boy took steps to ensure the safety of others, he was suspended from school for one year. The District refused a request for a due process hearing. During that year, he was provided with no alternative education. As a result, he was required to repeat the fifth grade. (Winona, MS)
An African-American honors student attending school in a predominantly white school district was suspended from school indefinitely for fighting. This was her first disciplinary referral. (SC)
That minorities are disproportionately represented does not mean that they are the only ones represented among the victims of these retrogressive policies. In the broader sense, it is an undeclared war against children and their families masquerading as a rescue crusade that is to blame for much of this nonsense. Enshrouded in the seemingly-benign rhetoric of the child rescue crusade, the public schools have managed to maintain their position, some mounting public pressure notwithstanding.
DOING “WHAT WORKS”
As the American Educational Research Association explains in a recently-issued Capitol Hill Briefing entitled New Strategies for Keeping Schools Safe: Evidence-based Approaches to Prevent Youth Violence: “Zero Tolerance has no scientific support and is widely criticized.”
More to the point, “Scientific reviews find no evidence that zero tolerance prevents school violence,” the Association notes.
“Suspension is linked to negative outcomes and likely contributes to the minority achievement gap,” the brief continues on to explain, adding that: “Repeated suspension from school tends to foster a downward spiral of academic failure, disengagement from school, and antisocial behaviors, with an increased probability of dropping out.”
We know what doesn’t work; so what will? “Evidence supports several new approaches to discipline,” the Association explains.
“Schools often respond to disruptive students with exclusionary and punitive approaches that have limited value. Two major approaches to school discipline and student self-regulation are School-Wide Positive Behavioral Supports (SWPBS) and Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Research strongly suggests that both approaches are beneficial, but neither is sufficient.” Next generation evidence-based disciplinary systems should include a blend of both elements, notes the briefing.
Restorative justice also offers a promising alternative, as we have seen from the recent study conducted at the University of California.
There is no shortage of alternative avenues to take. Indeed, all of the studies cited herein offer their own range of viable approaches. What is clear is that the policy of zero tolerance is, by all accounts, an abject failure. It should be phased out in favor of more progressive approaches that are backed by reliable and replicable research.
Standing in the way of meaningful reform are those politicians and career school-system bureaucrats who eschew the scientific approach to reform because it does not provide the convenience of “feel good” sound bites.