Is 'zero tolerance' bad for education?

Zero-tolerance policies have become commonplace in American schools, however some, including the Pennsylvania ACLU, say that schools are taking zero tolerance too far.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Critics of 'zero tolerance' say the policy leaves little room for alternative conflict resolution, such as restorative justice. Here, several educators and administrators participate in a Restorative Justice training session in Oakland, Calif., March 14.

Does a "zero-tolerance" approach to school discipline keep students safer or disrupt the educational process? The answer is, of course, complicated, but a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania [PDF of report here] presents an argument that the approach has sprawled greatly from its original anti-gun goals and that the impact has largely been to push students out of the classroom.

Zero tolerance was introduced in Pennsylvania in the 1990s, and, based on a 1995 state law, it required the expulsion of students found possessing a (broadly defined) "weapon."

But as the study goes on to note:

In Pennsylvania, as around the nation, zero tolerance took on a life of its own. Particularly over the last 15 years, it infected the culture of schools so that an even broader range of behaviors and conflicts, like school uniform violations or talking back to adults, became the basis for removal from school, even when removal was not required by law."

Sacrificed on the altar of order in schools: things like due process, conflict resolution, and the exploration of solutions to prevent future conflicts. And alternative discipline systems that focus on principles like restorative justice are sidelined as well; there's no opportunity to work through a collaborative process when mandatory suspensions are the default answer to many or most problems.

An Education Week story about the report illuminated the sheer number of suspensions in the system:

Pennsylvania school leaders issued an average of 10.1 suspensions for every 100 students during the 2011-2012 school year, the report says. The York City School District, which had the highest suspension rate in the state that year, issued 91 suspensions for every 100 students, the report says. Some students may have been suspended multiple times.

Under zero-tolerance policies, students in various states have faced suspension or expulsion for offenses ranging from playing with airsoft guns in their own yards, crafting a gun shape from a Pop Tart, and making gun hand gestures.

In aggregate, the policies are a parallel to the criminal justice system and its 1990s/early '00s rush toward mandatory minimum sentences. Both zero tolerance and mandatory minimums take discretion away from the authorities on hand to enforce rules, and both hand down sometimes draconian sentences that inflict harm far out of proportion to the offense in question, largely to satisfy a broad public desire to "get tough" on a specific problem.

While there's no getting around the fact that there is a guns-in-schools problem in America and a discipline-in-schools problem in many districts, evidence suggests that a broad-brush zero-tolerance approach to anything often causes more problems than it resolves; treating students like prisoners may do more to harm education than it does to save it. In fact, treating prisoners like prisoners are currently treated may cause more problems than it solves, but that's another series of studies entirely.

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