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Zero Tolerance Policies Earn a Big Fat "F"

Zero Tolerance Policies Earn A Big Fat "F" Zero tolerance policies have been in use in American public schools for over 20 years. Originated as a policy in drug enforcement, schools adopted them and mandated predetermined consequences, usually punitive in nature, for select forms of misbehavior. The theory was that removing misbehaving students will deter others from similar behaviors and will keep remaining students safe. It seemed logical, and even more importantly, it sounded tough.

But today the research is in—and zero tolerance has flunked.

Let's look at some of the findings, starting with those from the American Psychological Association (APA) task force which was convened to analyze existing data on zero tolerance policies. (

There was the widespread presumption that zero tolerance would increase the consistency of school discipline, but the APA found no such evidence. Rather, the policy can cover anything from firearms, alcohol, and drugs, to racial intolerance and bullying, with widely varying suspension or expulsion rates in every school.

It was also believed that removing misbehaving students would lead to the creation of a school climate more conducive to learning for remaining students. But the opposite was found. Schools with higher rates of school suspensions or expulsions had lower ratings on school climate surveys. Moreover, recent research by the UCLA Civil Rights Project indicates that higher suspensions or expulsions rates mean lower academic achievement.

The clear and immediate punishments associated with zero tolerance were assumed to deter misbehavior and improve student discipline generally. Again, the reverse was found. Zero tolerance appears to lead to higher rates of misbehavior and future suspensions or expulsions. The policy also contributes to higher dropout rates and failure to graduate on time.

Another rationale for enforcing zero tolerance was that one could remove subjective influences and contextual factors from suspension or expulsion decisions, thereby making such decisions fairer, especially to students of color who are usually overrepresented in severe discipline decisions. This assumption turned out to be wrong as well. African American and Hispanic students primarily, and special education students, continue to be disciplined more harshly for less serious infractions and/or more personally subjective reasons.

A preliminary finding also indicates a troubling connection between zero tolerance policies and higher rates of student alienation, anxiety, rejection, and distrust of adults. Significantly, exclusionary discipline policies tend to reduce students' opportunities to learn both academics and positive socialization skills.

In sum, zero tolerance has proven to be a minefield of unintended consequences.

Are there alternatives to zero tolerance policies? Happily, the answer is "Yes." In a 2011 report by Child Trends, three sensible, non-punitive alternatives were proposed: Targeted behavioral supports for at-risk students, character education and social-emotional learning programs, and school-wide positive behavioral interventions and Supports (SWPBIS).

The popular SWPBIS, which uses three tiers of support for school discipline. To benefit all students, schools must clearly define and teach behavioral expectations, reward positive behavior, use a continuum of possible consequences for misbehavior, and use student data when making discipline decisions.

A smaller percent of students, those at-risk of behavioral problems, need a disciplinary approach that includes targeted interventions, often carried out in interactive small groups. And, the smallest percent of students, who already exhibit problem behaviors, need yet another approach: one that includes a behavioral assessment and intense one-on-one counseling and support.

The Child Trends research names specific evidence-based programs for all three alternatives: .pdf.

It's time we heed the research and implement non-punitive measures to address student behavioral issues.


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