Wednesday, January 08, 2014


by Tom Chorneau | SI&A Cabinet Report | tolerance leaves mixed legacy of safer schools

January 08, 2014  ::  (N.Y.) Despite a steady decline in juvenile crime since a peak 20 years ago, researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice have compiled a growing body of evidence showing zero tolerance policies haven’t made schools safer or more orderly but may, in fact, promote the opposite.

In a policy paper released late last month, the non-profit criminal justice think tank challenged the perception that rigid policies calling for harsh punishments for a wide variety of on campus infractions have improved overall school environments. They offered instead some evidence that such systems actually contribute to the dropout rate and even help to create a school-to-prison pipeline.

“Policies that push students out of school can have life-long negative effects, perhaps severely limiting a young person’s future potential,” the paper’s authors concluded.

“That is troubling on an individual level for every boy and girl affected and of grave public concern when school systems exclude a significant proportion of the student body, as is the case in more than 300 districts nationwide that suspend and expel more than one in four of their secondary students,” said the team of Jacob Kang-Brown, Jennifer Trone, Jennifer Fratello and Tarika Daftary-Kapur.

They noted that over the past quarter century, school discipline has become far a more formal process that affects a higher percentage of the student population, meting out much more severe penalties more often.

The change started in the mid-1990s when districts all over the U.S. needed to respond to the rising crime rate among high school students. By 1996, the Vera paper reported, nearly 80 percent of schools nationwide had adopted zero tolerance policies – that is, automatic suspension or expulsion on first offense for a long list of infractions ranging from bringing a weapon or illegal drugs to schools to being caught using tobacco or being insubordinate in class.

As a result of new federal funding and tough-on-crime mandates adopted by Congress during the same period, the number of high schools with full-time security guards tripled between 1996 and 2008, according to the Vera report.

Meanwhile, the number of students receiving out-of-school suspensions skyrocketed by 40 percent from 1973, when one in 13 high school students were suspended or expelled; to one in nine by 2009.

“In recent years, an estimated two million students annually are suspended from secondary schools,” the Vera researchers said. “As a point of comparison, slightly more than three million students graduated high school in 2013.”

A closer look at how the system was working and which students were being targeted revealed some disturbing facts:

  • Black middle school students are suspended nearly four times more often than white.
  • Latino middle school students are suspended twice as often as white students.
  • Nationally, nearly a third (31 percent) of black boys in middle school were suspended at least once during the 2009–10 school year.
  • High school students with disabilities of any sort are nearly three times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension compared to high school students without disabilities.

The researchers also found that the vast majority of the suspensions and expulsions were not related to serious criminal or dangerous behavior. Only 5 percent of serious disciplinary actions nationally in recent years involved the possession of a weapon. Meanwhile, 43 percent of the expulsions and out-of-school suspensions lasting a week or longer were for insubordination.

The Vera team also argued that there is no research demonstration that harsh penalties have made schools safer. According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the proportion of students admitting to bringing a weapon on campus in 1993 was 22 percent. Nearly two decades later, in 2001, the percentage had dropped to just 17 percent.

The Vera team pointed to some jurisdictions where zero tolerance is running out of favor. Boston public schools changed its code of discipline in 2010 – and as a result, the number of students suspended or expelled dropped from 743 to 120 in just two years.

In Colorado, lawmakers revised state law governing school discipline in 2012 to encourage school districts to rely less on suspension and expulsion. More recently, Los Angeles Unified removed willful defiance as a reason for suspension or expulsion.

The researchers conceded that more research is needed to fully understand the interplay between discipline and school environment but they said there are some approaches that seem to work better than others.

One, they suggested, is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) – a method designed to be used school-wide to teach and encourage pro-social skills and behaviors. “Schools that use PBIS tend to be less reactive and exclusionary in the use of discipline and tend to have more engaging and productive learning environments,” they said. “As a result, students exposed to PBIS have better educational outcomes and more pro-social behavior and are subject to 33 percent fewer disciplinary referrals.

“A recent randomized trial of PBIS in elementary schools in Maryland found that it had a significant positive affect on a wide range of behavior, from the ability to concentrate to the ability to regulate emotions.”

Download: A Generation Later: What We’ve Learned about Zero Tolerance in Schools (pdf)

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