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New Year's Resolution for Policymakers: End Zero Tolerance
23 Dec 2015
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by Peter W. Cookson, Jr.

Poor education policies are like comets—briefly lighting up the public policy sky in a glittery blaze before disappearing into the void, leaving only a long tail of dust and gas. What looked like a good idea turns out to be an illusion, sometimes a destructive one.

Take, for instance, zero tolerance discipline policies, which became widespread after 1994 when federal legislation required states to expel any student who brought a firearm to school for one year, or lose federal funding. New discipline policies allowed school administrators to suspend students for offenses ranging from the serious (carrying a weapon in school) to the subjective (talking back). 

Zero tolerance policies were born out of fear and even desperation. After the 1999 school shootings in Colorado, some educators and public figures adopted a tough law-and-order stance. Call it the “broken window” approach to school safety—punish even the smallest infraction to stop the bigger ones.

Only it didn’t turn out that way.

Instead of deterrence, we got what can only be called a discipline regime of mass suspensions. According to The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, nearly 3.5 million public school students were suspended from school at least once in 2011-2012.

That is more than one student suspended for every public school teacher in America. The Civil Rights Project estimates that one in three students will be suspended at some point between kindergarten and 12th grade.

Not only is this rate of suspension counter-productive to educational progress, it also violates civil rights law. In their December 21st blog, my AIR colleagues Jeffrey Poirier and David Osher wrote about the damage the school-to-prison pipeline does to many young people and offered some positive solutions.

Mass suspensions weren’t among them. Socially toxic, they single out for punishment far too many minority students and other students outside of the mainstream.

In a 2014 Dear Colleague letter, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights found that African-American students—about 15 percent of the Offices’ student database—account for 35 percent of the students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended twice, and 36 percent of those expelled. More than half of the students involved in school-related arrests or who are referred to police are Hispanic or African American.

But if this policy comet’s tail is long, maybe it’s not endless.

The Los Angeles Unified School District—and many other districts—are doing away with zero tolerance. In the two years since LA Unified banned suspensions for such offences as “willful defiance,” suspensions have dropped by 53 percent and graduation rates have risen 12 percent.

More good news: sound guidance for backing out of or avoiding discriminatory discipline policies is available.

The appendix of the Office of Civil Rights’ Dear Colleague letter, for instance, offers alternatives to zero tolerance polices based on positive behavioral interventions and supports. Some of the specific recommendations include:

  • Creating a safe, inclusive, and positive school environment
  • Training and professional development for all school personnel
  • Using law enforcement appropriately
  • Setting clear and consistent expectations and consequences
  • Emphasizing positive interventions when removing students from school

My AIR colleagues Greta Colombi and David Osher have made similar suggestions. In their report, Advancing School Discipline Reform, they identify school districts across the nation that are revising or dropping altogether ineffective zero tolerance policies. Colombi and Osher’s recommendations include such innovations as family group conferences, fostering healthy relationships among students and adults, and creating a sense of community.

For me, seeing is believing. On a recent research trip to the Midwest, my AIR colleagues and I saw first-hand how school discipline policies that emphasize community and social and emotional skills create learning and living environments where students thrive rather than withdraw and/or act out.

In one school, the principal has done away with the bell system and uniformed guards and worked with faculty and staff to promote a positive school climate. He and his colleagues have found that discipline problems decline when individualized interventions and positive remedies replace punitive disciple policies. 

With research, guidelines, and early successes auguring well for alternatives to harsh discipline, 2016 can be a new beginning. Let’s allow zero tolerance discipline and other failed, counter-productive policies to disappear into the void. And let’s ensure that evidence-based practices take their place. (We all can think of policies that ought to disappear—I confess, my list is long.) 

From a risk/benefit standpoint, there is little downside. The thing about comets is that they look solid and shine brightly, but in the end have no real substance.

How do we know if a policy isn’t all water, dust, and gas? Look for evidence, weigh that evidence, and never mistake a tail of policy vapor for the real thing.

Peter W. Cookson, Jr., is a principal researcher and director of The Equity Project at AIR.

Related: Read Jeffrey M. Poirier and David Osher's blog, "Zero Tolerance and Bias Reinforce the School-to-Prison Pipeline". 

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