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.