Pendulum swings away from zero tolerance

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Zero tolerance has been practiced in American schools for decades but its reign might be coming to an end soon.

This year the Colorado General Assembly approved Senate Bill 46, the Smart School Discipline Law that states: “state laws must allow school administrators and local boards of education to use their discretion to determine the appropriate disciplinary response to each incident of student misconduct.” Ya think!

We've heard the stories: an 8-year-old expelled for having a plastic knife in his lunchbox, a high-school baseball team member expelled for having a baseball bat in his car and the 6-year-old expelled for making a “finger gun.”

According to Consortium to Prevent School Violence “Fact Sheet #3: Zero Tolerance Policies in Schools,” zero tolerance began as part of the drug interdiction programs of the 1970s and '80s, which in turn led to the adoption of the federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which requires any student who brings a firearm to school to be expelled for one year. States and school districts have since broadened the definition of firearms to include other “weapons” such as nail clippers, paper swords and finger guns.

The act allows school administrators to modify the one-year expulsion on a case-by-case basis but legislators seem to have forgotten that part of the law.

As the fact sheet states: “Zero-tolerance policies have generally involved harsh disciplinary consequences such as long-term suspension or expulsion for violations involving drugs, alcohol, aggression and … weapons, but have also been applied to minor or nonviolent violations of rules such as tardiness and disorderly conduct.”

A March 11, 2009, Everyday Psychology article, “Zero Tolerance Policies: no substitute for good judgment,” summarizes a study by the American Psychological Association showing that zero tolerance policies don't work. The following is my summary of the article's summary:

Assumption #1: These policies are needed because school violence is increasing. Reality: There is no evidence that these policies result in fewer disciplinary infractions and school violence, despite some high-profile cases, started dropping even before the policies were created.

Assumption #2: Mandatory and inflexible punishments create consistent discipline. Reality: The rules are not enforced evenly. Students of color and students with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be expelled or suspended than white students for the same infractions.

Assumption #3: Removing disruptive students creates a better learning environment. Reality: The more expulsions and suspensions a school has the lower its academic achievement rates.

Assumption #4: Zero-tolerance policies deter repeat offences. Reality: The opposite is true; students punished in this way are more likely to continue to misbehave, drop out of school and fail to graduate.

Assumption #5: Parents and students overwhelmingly support zero tolerance policies. Reality: While some parents and students support zero tolerance in specific cases, many more believe punishment should fit the crime and there should be room for second chances.

The study concludes that orderly, safe schools have more to do with the quality of teachers and school governance than it does with zero-tolerance policies.

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