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September 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 1

Stepping Back from Zero Tolerance

How can schools create a positive culture when they treat students like criminals?

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In 2000, the Reverend Jesse Jackson led a protest against the harsh punishment imposed on seven black high school students who had been involved in a fight at a school football game in Decatur, Illinois. Although the fight had apparently been spontaneous, had involved no weapons, and had lasted 17 seconds, the Decatur school board cited its "zero tolerance" policy in handing down a two-year suspension for all seven students. In an interview, Jackson commented,As I got deeper into it, I realized there is this tremendous anger toward America's youth—three strikes and you're out, mandatory sentencing, and so on. Politicians refuse to modernize schools; they cut out midnight basketball, but build all these new jails. First-class jails, second-class schools. This is zero tolerance. (Wing, 2000)
My own involvement with zero tolerance began when Reverend Jackson sought the Advancement Project's opinion on possible civil rights violations arising from the Decatur students' punishment, which seemed excessive and discriminatory. The concept of zero tolerance was new to me and to most Americans, but public schools were widely adopting this approach. As I visited schools and observed zero tolerance in action, it became clear that this discipline philosophy was creating uncaring learning environments in which students were struggling to thrive.
In the years since that incident, the Advancement Project has continued to study zero tolerance and its consequences. We have found that schools across the United States have employed an unforgiving system of discipline in which children and youth are punished for punishment's sake. This disciplinary policy often disrupts the trust between students and adults in a school.

How Zero Tolerance Took Hold

The origins of school zero tolerance policies can be traced to the 1980s and the launch of the "war on drugs." As the United States ramped up its efforts to criminalize drug offenses, youth were caught in an unrelenting crackdown.
Concurrently, the news media was picking up on the myth of the juvenile superpredator, a term coined by Princeton professor John DiIulio to describe a supposed new phenomenon of "radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more preteenage boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs and create serious communal disorders" (Bennett, DiIulio, & Walters, 1996). Although DiIulio later distanced himself from this theory, the damage had been done: The justice system used the concept to justify a new, tougher approach to juvenile crime, in which the idea of rehabilitation was discarded in favor of harsh punishment (Templeton, 1998).
The school shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 fueled fears that schools were becoming more violent and dangerous—a perception not supported by data, which show that in fact school safety in the United States has improved since the mid-1990s (Virginia Youth Violence Project, n.d.). In the name of safety, public schools began adopting the tactics used in the war on drugs and the fight against juvenile crime. Although such tactics may have created a perception of safety, zero tolerance policies and practices have been eroding the caring culture of U.S. schools and creating devastating consequences for children.

The Growth of Punitive Discipline

Initially, zero tolerance policies were those that required predetermined, nonnegotiable punishments for specific acts of misbehavior. But in the last decade, zero tolerance has morphed into a broad, sweeping set of harsh disciplinary practices that exclude children from learning for a range of misbehaviors, even the most trivial.
Across the United States, more than 3 million students are suspended from school every year (Planty et al., 2009). Of course, the numbers differ from state to state and from district to district. But the evidence shows that in many states and school districts, out-of-school suspensions are increasing at a staggering rate. For example, Texas reported almost 645,000 suspensions in 2007–08, 43 percent more than the state had reported in 2002–03 (Texas Education Agency, n.d.). That same year, Chicago reported 93,312 suspensions—quadruple the number reported in 2001–02 (Illinois State Board of Education, n.d.). Similarly, in New York City, long-term suspensions (6 days to 1 year) increased by 76 percent between 2000 and 2005 (Advancement Project, 2010).
The data show that punitive, exclusionary discipline practices have a disproportionate and growing impact on youth of color. Black students in the United States were more than three times more likely to be suspended than their white peers in 2006–07 (U.S. Department of Education, 2006). This disparity is not attributable to students of color engaging in worse behaviors; instead, these students are referred more often and receive harsher consequences than their white peers for the same behaviors (Advancement Project, 2011).
Schools are not only enforcing harsh, draconian discipline policies—they are also increasingly treating student misbehavior as criminal. Many schools have turned to law enforcement and juvenile courts for discipline enforcement. Although no national data exist to track the number of arrests of students in schools, a look at representative states and districts exposes this trend. For example, the number of school-based arrests in Pennsylvania almost tripled from 1999–2000 to 2006–07, from 4,563 to 12,918. In Philadelphia alone, law enforcement was involved in more than 4,400 incidents, resulting in more than 2,900 arrests in 2008–09 (Pennsylvania Safe Schools Online, n.d.). Again, the brunt of this excessive punishment is felt by students of color.

The Real Stories

  • In November 2009, after a food fight in a Chicago middle school, 25 black students ages 11–15 were arrested, charged with reckless conduct, taken to jail in handcuffs, and held for hours until their parents arrived (Saulny, 2009).
  • In Philadelphia, a 6-year-old was expelled from his charter school for inappropriately touching his teacher. The teacher had complained that her legs were hurting her, and the boy patted her thighs and said, "I want to make them feel better" (Dale, 2011).
  • Gabriella Nieves, an 8th grade student in Norfolk, Virginia, asked her teacher for permission to get some water to take a Tylenol pill that a classmate had given her. Citing the zero tolerance policy that did not differentiate between an over-the-counter pain reliever and marijuana or crack cocaine, the school imposed an indefinite suspension and insisted that the student attend a drug and alcohol abuse program run by Juvenile Justice Services. After protests, the district reduced the suspension to two days and dropped the drug program requirement (On Deadline Blog, 2007).
  • The suicide of a young man in Fairfax, Virginia, in January 2011 was attributed to depression caused by the protracted disciplinary process that descended on him after he purchased one capsule of an imitation drug. Fifteen-year-old Nick Stuban, a dedicated member of his school football team and a model student, was threatened with expulsion, suspended for two months, barred from the grounds of his school (and thus kept from such activities as Boy Scouts and athletic events), and subsequently transferred to another school. His infraction? He had purchased one capsule of JWH-018, a (legal) synthetic compound that produces a marijuana-like effect. School officials classified his possession of this "imitation controlled substance" as behavior "incompatible with a K–12 educational environment" (St. George, 2011a).
Even in cases with less tragic outcomes, severe punishments can have significant negative consequences for youth. A report from the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force (2008) concluded that zero tolerance does not improve school safety—in fact, use of exclusionary practices appears to negatively affect student behavior. The task force found that students who have been suspended or expelled are more likely to drop out of school. When students feel less connected to school, they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, violence, and alcohol or substance abuse. Youth arrested or referred to law enforcement may experience even more disastrous, lifelong consequences: These incidents may be reflected on their records as they apply to college, seek to enter the military, or apply for jobs.

A More Calibrated Approach

Harsh disciplinary practices, including out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and transfers to alternative schools, have increasingly come under fire (St. George, 2011b). Many school districts are now searching for alternatives to exclusionary practices and are developing practices and programs to use discipline to teach, maintain safety, and strengthen students' connectedness to school.
A sensible first step is to revise school district discipline codes. Some districts are beginning to adopt discipline policies that apply graduated consequences based on a student's prior conduct and circumstances. School districts are also eliminating the use of out-of-school suspensions for tardiness, truancy, or subjective conduct such as "disrespect of authority."
For example, the Advancement Project worked with the Baltimore, Maryland, public schools and community stakeholders to revise the district's student code of conduct. Certain low-level incidents—such as dress code violations, unexcused absences, having a cell phone or iPod at school, tardiness, or causing minor property damage—can no longer result in an out-of-school suspension. The district has instead increased its use of such interventions as restorative justice, community conferencing, referrals to appropriate counselors, and peer mediation. In addition, the district now considers mitigating factors, such as the student's age and prior conduct, the severity of the incident, and the student's willingness to repair the harm. The result has been a steep decrease in suspensions (from 26,000 in 2003–04 to 10,000 in 2009–10) and a significant increase in graduation rates.
In Denver, Colorado, which adopted discipline code modifications proposed by the Advancement Project and its partner Padres y Jovenes Unidos, sweeping positive changes have occurred. The new discipline code requires schools to limit students' time out of class and to deal with minor misconduct within the school system. It emphasizes graduated discipline, reserving out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to law enforcement for the most serious misconduct. Denver schools are required to collect and monitor discipline data and to work toward eliminating racial disparities.
In addition to changing its disciplinary code, Denver Public Schools instituted restorative justice, which focuses on resolving conflict by repairing harm and restoring relationships (see "Building Safer, Saner Schools" by Laura Mirsky). As a result of these initiatives, the school district has experienced a 40 percent reduction in suspensions in the last seven years and a 68 percent decline in referrals to law enforcement in the last three years.
Many school districts are also changing their approach to discipline by implementing evidence-based programs that teach students different behaviors. Some schools, like North Lawndale College Prep High School in Chicago, have redirected funds used for security to increasing the number of counselors and social workers. The Los Angeles Unified School adopted a new discipline policy based on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. This alternative to zero tolerance includes strategies to teach, model, and reinforce appropriate behaviors; collaboration with parents and others to intervene to change inappropriate behaviors; and supports for students to address the root causes of behavior. The district also uses alternatives to suspensions and transfers.

More Tolerance, Not Less

Our public schools must be places where children can learn not only important academic content, but also lessons about being good citizens. If we care about children, we must abandon harsh, inflexible approaches to discipline that fail to improve student behavior, change the way students feel about school, and challenge the sense of fairness that young people develop during their formative years.
Out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and the criminalization of children not only hurt individual students, but also have a broader negative impact on our schools and our communities. Children robbed of opportunities to learn are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system and to live in poverty as adults. Doubling up on our efforts to work with children, parents, and staff in our schools to build more caring environments will ultimately benefit us all.
Lack of tolerance is a dead-end solution. Tolerance is exactly what our children need—not only to learn and survive, but also to thrive.

Advancement Project. (2010). Test, punish, and push out: How "zero tolerance" and high-stakes testing funnel youth into the school-to-prison pipeline. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from www.advancementproject.org/sites/default/files/publications/rev_fin.pdf

Advancement Project. (2011). Zero tolerance in Philadelphia: Denying educational opportunities and creating a pathway to prison. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from www.advancementproject.org/sites/default/files/publications/YUC%20Report%20Final%20-%20Lo-Res.pdf

American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist, 63(9), 852–862.

Bennett, W. J., DiIulio J. J., & Walters, J. P. (1996). Body count: Moral poverty—and how to win America's war against crime and drugs. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Dale, M. (2011, June 13). Judge: No expulsion for kindergarten touching. Msnbc.com. Retrieved from www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43385944/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/judge-no-expulsion-kindergarten-touching

Illinois State Board of Education. (n.d.). End-of-year suspension reports. Retrieved from www.isbe.net/research/htmls/eoy_report.htm

Planty, M., Hussar, W., Snyder, T., Kena, G., KewalRamani, A., Kemp, J., Bianco, K., et al. (2009). The condition of education 2009 (NCES 2009–081). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009081.pdf

On Deadline Blog. (2007, May 8). School punishes 13-year-old who wanted to take Tylenol for headache. USA Today Online.

Pennsylvania Safe Schools Online. (n.d.). School safety annual reports. Retrieved from www.safeschools.state.pa.us

Saulny, S. (2009, November 11). 25 Chicago students arrested from middle-school food fight. New York Times, p. A18.

St. George, D. (2011a, February 20). Suicide turns attention to Fairfax discipline procedures. Washington Post. Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/suicide-turns-attention-to-fairfax-discipline-procedures/2011/02/14/AB9UtxH_story_4.html

St. George, D. (2011b, June 1). More schools rethinking zero-tolerance discipline stand. Washington Post. Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/more-schools-are-rethinking-zero-tolerance/2011/05/26/AGSIKmGH_story.html

Templeton, R. (1998, January/February). Superscapegoating: Teen "superpredators" hype set stage for draconian legislation. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Retrieved from www.fair.org/index.php?page=1414

Texas Education Agency. (n.d.). Discipline reports. Retrieved from http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/adhocrpt/Disciplinary_Data_Products/Disciplinary_Reports.html

U.S. Department of Education. (2006). Civil rights data collection for 2006. Washington, DC: Author.

Virginia Youth Violence Project. (n.d.). National statistics. Charlottesville: University of Virginia School of Education. Retrieved from http://youthviolence.edschool.virginia.edu/violence-in-schools/national-statistics.html

Wing, B. (2000, March 10). Zero tolerance: An interview with Jesse Jackson on race and school discipline. Colorlines. Retrieved from www.colorlines.com/archives/2000/03/zero_tolerance_an_interview_with_jesse_jackson_on race_and_school_discipline.html

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