The Vera Institute of Justice recently published, “A Generation Later: What We’ve Learned about Zero Tolerance in Schools”. Vera is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit center for justice policy and practice which uses research to help leaders improve the systems people rely on for justice and safety. “Zero tolerance” policies mandate suspension or expulsion of students for misconduct. The theory underlying zero tolerance policies is that schools are safer and the learning environment is less disrupted when problem students are removed from the school setting. However, there is no research actually demonstrating this effect.
While zero tolerance policies are commonly thought to include only serious offenses like bringing a weapon or drugs to school, these suspension practices are most commonly used for relatively minor offenses like disrespect, defiance and attendance problems. Only 5% of serious disciplinary actions nationally in recent years involve possession of a weapon. While the rates of violent crime among juveniles is decreasing, the number of secondary school students suspended or expelled over the course of a school year increased roughly 40% from 1972 to 2009. Among middle school students, black youth are suspended nearly four times more often than white youth, and Latino youth are roughly twice as likely to be suspended or expelled than white youth. Students with special education needs are also suspended or expelled at higher rates.
No studies show that an increase in out-of-school suspension and expulsion reduces disruption in the classroom and some evidence suggests the opposite effect. In general, rates of suspension and expulsion appear unrelated to overall school success for schools with similar characteristics. Meanwhile, pushing students out of school can have long lasting negative effects. Some of the most rigorous research conducted on the subject of zero tolerance shows that out-of-school suspension can severely disrupt a student’s academic progress. In one national longitudinal study, youth with a prior suspension were 68% more likely to drop out of school, helping to create a “school to prison” pipeline.
A move away from zero tolerance policies is likely in order. There’s growing consensus that the most effective schools reinforce positive behavior and respond to behavioral problems on a case-by-case basis in ways that suit the individual’s circumstances and needs. That implies a return to discretion within a specified disciplinary structure. For more information on this study and source citations, click here.
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