A Return to Common Sense and Reason
The US Department of Education recently condemned zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools. Time and experience have proven zero-tolerance policies-where all degrees of discipline issues are treated in a rigid, cause-effect way-are ineffective at reducing violence and teaching our students a better way to live and treat others. With this shift in public policy, we are now ready to build a more humane and hopeful approach to school discipline and violence prevention, one where reasonable and consistent discipline policies and practices build relationships and a positive school climate, not destroy them.
Where did the idea of using zero-tolerance in our schools come from?
The zero-tolerance policies enacted in the 1990s were a well-intentioned response to a growing concern about the presence of illegal drugs, alcohol, and firearms on school campuses. The Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 implemented a nationwide law mandating a one-year expulsion for students who were proven to have brought a firearm or other weapon to school. Over time, some states and school districts expanded zero-tolerance policies to include a range of behaviors including illegal drugs, insubordination, and bullying and they became the disciplinary approach of choice from kindergarten to high school.
Unfortunately after all these years, researchers have found that such punitive threats do little to deter violent behavior and often exacerbate a problematic situation. Automatic rigid penalties such as suspensions and expulsions:
- Prevent schools from considering context and individual circumstances.
- Damage relationships and chip away at the climate of the school.
- Are disproportionate to race and socio-economic status, and students with special educational needs.
- Encourage adults to give up on “problem” students.
- Do nothing to encourage interventions that could help change students’ behavior, save them from dropping out of school, and keep them from continuing to act violently and winding up in jail.
- Can look foolishly misguided as in the case of the suspension of a kindergarten child for bringing a weapon to school (a dinner knife), or a first grader for sexually harassing a classmate (kissing her during recess).
By ignoring context and circumstances, zero-tolerance policies had a disproportional and negative impact on African-American and Latino students and were often a path to more trouble and imprisonment. The policies disregarded the reality that a student’s life experiences and the type of community he lives in profoundly affect his understanding of what is and is not acceptable behavior. At times home and neighborhood give a context for behavior that would be out of line in a school and, in the same way, school approved behaviors might seem foreign and impractical given the home environment.
Children face an internal conflict in trying to live successfully in these two very different worlds. This results in the alienation of students raised in toxic environments and who find themselves in a school culture that contradicts their own norms. They get in trouble more easily and more often for using the survival skills they have adopted in response to a culture of violence where emotional and physical force is the everyday means of dealing with conflict. Their behavior is as much about self-preservation as it would be for a soldier in a war zone.
It bears reinforcing that when we consider circumstances it does not mean we accept inappropriate behavior: Violent and disruptive behavior are still serious and must be stopped. Standards for behavior are kept high, all misbehavior is consistently addressed, and the safety of students and staff remains the top priority. Yet we are mindful that every inappropriate behavior is not of the same seriousness and does not deserve the same response.
One-Size Discipline Does Not Fit All
The more alienated the student, the greater the feeling of powerlessness and the greater the effort needed to reach out to help him develop that critical missing connection to the school and to those in it. So, we can be more effective by being more thoughtful. In place of zero-tolerance policies we can use our broad understanding of violence as a continuum of behaviors- emotional and physical, subtle to obvious – to address violence in all its forms and to understand its patterns. Then we can intervene early. And when we do intervene we can be compassionate and fair in our expectations, and work with students to replace their learned violent behaviors with socially acceptable alternatives, each according to need. It’s both logical and natural to treat individuals in the way that is most effective for them, to meet them where they are in their development, to help them grow in self-discipline and self-control, and to learn constructive ways to get their needs met. We take this approach to skill building for academics, learning an instrument, in sports, etc, so why not for behavior? We consider context and understand each circumstance and that the child is still learning.
Inconsistent responses to acts of violence (a behavior is okay for one group of students but not for another, or the behavior is not always addressed) and “ zero tolerance” policies that react rigidly to categories of behavior cause students and families to regard school rules and staff with skepticism. They see school and the administrators and teachers as unresponsive and even discriminatory. They lose faith in the educational system, or see their preconceived opinions about the school reinforced. These missteps undermine our efforts to build the trust with children and their families needed to change inappropriate behavior.
And to what end? A comprehensive policy research report on the effect of zero tolerance policies and practices found “an almost complete lack of evidence that zero tolerance is among the strategies capable of accomplishing that objective (reducing violent and illegal behavior). Researcher Russell Skiba concluded, “One can only hope for the development and application of more effective, less intrusive alternatives for preserving the safety of our nation’s schools.”
A Better Way
School education lawyer Dean Pickett understood the concept of context when he called for a more reasonable approach, which involves “zero tolerance for behavior but not zero thinking.” The addition of thinking and using our judgment allows administrators and other school adults to consider context and circumstances, and intent and history of the student to decide the most fair and effective response.
These fair responses offered through caring, concerned relationships are what we owe our students and how we can best effect change in their attitudes and behavior. This is what I would want if I found myself in trouble.
A confusion of issues and solutions
We are back to school after the terrible tragedy of December 14th and the long holiday vacation. It was a juxtaposition of realities for families and school staff. And then the tragedy was high jacked by the gun industry, propelling us into a national discussion about arming school personnel to protect students and staff from a future violent rampage.
It is natural for caring people to want to do something, to take concrete action to prevent any more deaths of innocent school children and adults. We feel helpless otherwise. Every school district and building is likely reviewing its crisis prevention and emergency response plans, wondering how it would have handled the situation, making improvements, and holding practice drills. We are skittish.
But the discussion has gone askew. Putting guns in schools for protection is a dangerous diversion from the issues, a misguided over reaction that makes schools less safe. It is heartening to see the growing push back against this proposed solution.
Violence in Perspective
What we really need to do is to put what happened at Sandy Hook in perspective. Mass murder, or any murder, is still extremely rare at a school. It is horrible, but rare. And what happened at Sandy Hook is even more rare, as it does not fit the typical profile for the kind of deadly violence of a Columbine, Jonesboro, or West Paducah . This time the killer was not a disenfranchised, troubled, bullied male student from that school, hell-bent on notoriety or revenge. The Sandy Hook killer was an outsider, a troubled adult with a not yet revealed motive for choosing this elementary school to act out his mental breakdown.
But, yes! There is violence in schools and it spans the violence continuum from subtle to overt, from emotional to physical. The profile of school violence looks like this:
Common, every day – taunting, teasing, excluding, bullying, shoving, threatening, harassing, hazing…among students.
Rare: Incidents of killing of students and staff by a student in that school.
Extremely rare: Incidents of killing of students and staff by an outside intruder.
The real issues
It is clear that deadly gun violence by a student or an outsider are a distant second and third behind the typical more subtle violence our students have to deal with in schools daily, and that they are very different issues. What happened at Sandy Hook is not a school issue; it is a cultural, societal, and legal issue.
Suggesting that the routine use of armed guards or armed staff at all schools is the answer to school violence is irrational. It intentionally clouds the broader issues of a culture that uses violence to settle problems and to dominate others, the control of access to assault and other weapons, and the insufficient availability of mental health services for those in need and their families. These are the issues Sandy Hooks begs us to face head on if we truly want to keep our children and ourselves safe from random mass-shootings, because they can and do happen anywhere – at the mall, on our streets, in a movie theater, in a fast food restaurant, at an office building, and in our homes. The answer is not to station armed guards where ever people gather.
We can do some concrete things to make our schools safe
- Have a written school safety plan that includes prevention and crisis response that meets our specific needs. From what we know, the principal and staff had done this due diligence to protect the members of their school. They developed a thorough crisis prevention/intervention plan that included controlled, limited access to the school, a plan for lock down and sheltering in place in an emergency, and a plan for sheltering off site in the event of an evacuation; and they practiced the drill with their students and staff. Add to this the valor of the adults and cooperation of the children, and they can rest assured they had taken school safety seriously. An armed guard or a principal with a gun would likely not have stopped someone with a semi-automatic weapon that planned to break into a school to shoot people.
- Review and address the safety needs of our particular school. Many schools, usually secondary schools, in high-risk areas or with a high incidence of verbal and physical threats, poor administrative leadership, assaults, gang activity, non-compliance with the staff and school code of conduct, etc. have responded to their specific needs with security measures such as campus guards, controlled entry, and metal detectors, no backpacks, and swift and consistent response to violent threats or acts. These precautions are proper in these situations, but not for all schools.
- Continue to intentionally make our school a violence-free zone for every student and adult. Assess and address the kinds of subtle, hurtful violence students face every day. Be observant, listen to students, and report and deal with problems as they arise. We aren’t helpless. This is what we can do to make schools safer and more secure for our children.
For information on the violence continuum and how to use it to identify the needs in your school, please see my book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate.