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Child Watch® Column: "Zero Tolerance Discipline Policies: A Failing Idea"

Release Date: August 5, 2011

Marian Wright Edelman

Many school children in America are on summer break right now, but here's a pop quiz about discipline policies in our nation's schools that's just for grownups:

Would you suspend a student from school for four months for sharpening his pencil without permission and giving the teacher a "threatening" look when asked to sit down?

Would you expel a student from school for the rest of a school year for poking another student with a ballpoint pen during an exam?

Would you expel a student from school permanently because her possession of an antibiotic violated your school's zero-tolerance drug policy?

Would you call the police, handcuff, and then expel a student who started a snowball fight on school grounds?

If you answered ‘no' to any of these questions because they sounded too unfair to be the result of an actual policy, give yourself a failing grade. All four are real examples of zero tolerance school discipline policies in Massachusetts—and there are thousands of stories like these throughout that state and across the country. Suspended and expelled students are at greater risk of dropping out of school and dropping into the prison pipeline, and using automatic suspensions and expulsions for minor infractions often has a major negative effect on a child's entire future.

New research analyzing the data from the 2009 – 2010 school year in Massachusetts found nearly 60,000 school expulsions and suspensions. Just over half of them were for "unassigned offenses" – nonviolent, noncriminal offenses, which can include behavioral issues such as swearing, talking back to a teacher, and truancy. (I've never understood why you suspend or expel children for not coming to school rather than finding out why!) Of the approximately 30,000 "unassigned offenses," two-thirds received out of school suspension, resulting in 57,000 lost days of school. What's more, because Massachusetts schools aren't currently required to report "unassigned offenses" resulting in exclusions of 10 days or less for regular education students, the estimated actual number of disciplinary exclusions is likely at least two to three times the 60,000 reported.

Jen Vorse Wilka, a student at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, found these startling statistics when she studied zero tolerance discipline policies in Massachusetts as part of her master's degree program. Her final report, "Dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline: Analyzing Zero Tolerance School Discipline Policies and Identifying Strategic Opportunities for Intervention," received an award from the school's faculty and sheds new light on the need to address these harmful policies.

Added together, the tens of thousands of suspensions—many for minor infractions—have an enormous negative impact. As Wilka explains, "Children start down the path to prison in both jarring and subtle ways. It's not just the teenager who ends up behind bars; it's also the child who is suspended for disruptive behavior, misses a few days of school, and begins to feel disconnected. The more disconnected he becomes, the more he acts out in class. This cycle repeats. National research suggests that this child is three times more likely to drop out of school by 10th grade than a student who has never been suspended; and dropping out triples the likelihood this child will end up incarcerated later in life. It is this indirect pipeline that can be addressed by implementing more nuanced approaches to school discipline, helping students stay in school—and out of prison."

This report bolsters the work Massachusetts community leaders and advocates are already doing to take action against harsh one-size-fits-all policies and call for more balanced approaches. Right now, Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC) and the Education Law Task Force are championing two pieces of legislation to reduce school exclusion for disciplinary reasons and, by doing so, reduce school dropouts; improve access to education among students excluded from school; and require the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to review and respond to school exclusion data. The Children's Defense Fund has endorsed both bills. MAC also is championing a new bill to ensure schools have the supports and tools they need to become safe, supportive learning environments that result in far fewer school exclusions. If successful, these pieces of legislation could become a model for effectively curbing these policies' negative impact.

All of this work has special implications in Massachusetts because that state spends six times more per prisoner than per public school pupil—a greater disparity than in any other state. The most recent data show that in 2007 Massachusetts spent $78,580 per prisoner and only $12,857 per pupil. That's a pretty dumb investment policy. Sound fiscal policy means investing in early childhood development and education especially in these economic hard times. Intervening early not only saves lives and futures, it saves money. Zero tolerance discipline policies aren't helping the children who need intervention the most at all. Instead, they are excluding thousands of students from school every year—including many students who most need to be in class—and making those children even more likely to end up trapped in the destructive, expensive prison pipeline. These kinds of policies deserve a failing grade and correction.


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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by jonimahoney at: August 22, 2011
This is a wonderful article. I am copying this to send to my son's old high school here in Bullhead City Arizona. My son ended up moving to Tucson Arizona with my sister and her husband to give him a better chance at high school and then College. He graduated high school with double honors and early last april 20, 2011.

Submitted by brotherminister1 at: August 10, 2011
Do not let up with this its so old and based upon the punitive mindset of a different age in the development of this country. There is a policy called Restorative Justice that is about facing the issue and n ot sending the child home to learn what from what happened? many d n ot even get the magnitude of the infraction. Its based upon a notion that the other kids that did not get suspend that day are there to learn. Please!

Submitted by MauMauSistah at: August 8, 2011
The research reported supports a significant amount of anecdotal evidence here in Georgia, relative to the risks that children endure when they receive adverse consequences from the "zero-tolerance" policy. Logic and reason seem to've been abandoned in favor of schools "getting tough", with no apparent regard for the long-term consequences of such harsh overreactions. This will be a wake-up call to administrators and policy makers nationwide. Our children can ill-afford to be in so-called learning environments where a lack of common sense prevails.

Submitted by taxguy at: August 8, 2011
Just experienced this same thing ourselves. Our honor roll daughter was accused of making a threatning comment to another student. School investigated but since they could not prove she did not say what she was being accused of they passed it onto the school board who decided instead of doing there job they just passed it off to the DA. We went in for the hearing and it was pretty clear even to the gentleman we were speaking to that my daughter had not done any of this, she was charged with terroristic threatning 2nd degree, but because the way the law was written the juvenile system had to take any and all, true or false, like they were actualy true and figure out how to handle. I give the system a little credit here because in the end they asked my daughter to write a statement of what exactly happened and told her flat up to just tell the truth and that she did not have to admit to anything she did not do and in her letter to explain what she thought were some changes that needed to be made to avoid this. She did me proud and explained in her letter that putting kids on a bus for 3 hours a day when schools were 5 minutes walking distance from there homes were a big part of this and also that innocent kids have no real defense against other kids making stuff up. Sanity has to return or we will loose a generation!

Submitted by Social worker at: August 6, 2011
Thank you so much for so clearly and directly articulating the many factors which support or hurt the healthy development of children and youth. I have always been critical of suspensions since no one benefits. Even the school loses in the end since students are not learning during this time. I will be sharing this article since these uncalled for suspensions also happen in NYC schools especially where children of color predominate.

Submitted by KGL at: August 6, 2011
"Zero Tolerance" is really zero intelligence. It is the excuse incompetent administrators hide behind when they are too inept or inert to actually HANDLE the problem presented. It is the administrator's dream: A policy which condones the utter inability to perform the primary function of position.

Submitted by Beeban at: August 6, 2011
The work which you have done, and are doing with children over decades is God's work. As I read your articles, I can feel the love, dedication, devotion to duty. I live in Greenville, South Carolina, and I wrote to every state senator and house member to repeal the 'Disturbing School law'. It is a nebulous, ill-defined, and elastic law, that is grossly abused by teachers, and Resource Officers, at the detriment of poor minority students, especially boys. I gave a presentation to Greenville School District Board, and urged them most strongly to drastically reduce the suspension and exclusion rate of minority students from 58% to 24% to reflect their percentage in the student population. I also wrote to every school principle urging them to devise programs to raise the attainment levels of minority students above'basic' to 'proficient' and advanced' levels in English Language Arts, Math, and Science. I am presently engaging the Greenville Democrats to focus the political conversation on Education and job creation.

Submitted by KidLaw at: August 6, 2011
Thank you for bringing attention to the destructiveness of Zero Tolerance policies.

Submitted by Zi at: August 6, 2011
Job well done, Ms. have truly touched upon one of the major civil rights issues of our son was in jeopardy of suspension for laughing at a statement another child said in class. I immediately sprung into action and prevented that from happening, but many parents are hampered by power differential. We must advocate on their behalf. Aziza Lucas-Wright

Submitted by Monty at: August 6, 2011
There is little doubt that the U.S. leads all 'advanced' nations in child poverty and social inequality, and that both have been getting worse. So this report is a valuable reminder. But two points: 1) The claim about reading and doing math on grade level is flawed. CDF refers to results of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, specifically to percentages who do not attain proficiency. However, proficiency does not mean 'grade level.' After levels were set, the National Academies of Sciences and Education concluded the levels-setting process was deeply flawed and the resulting levels set too high (different procedures for setting levels or cutoff scores produce different results). Thus, proficient is way above average. For most people, 'grade level' means average, so to say most kids cannot read on grade level based on NAEP scores is to mislead the public. Too bad this misuse keeps reappearing. 2) Too many leaders claim education will solve poverty. Improving education is vitally important, but it is no substitute for more directly addressing poverty (or segregation). There is still no large-scale evidence that schools can over-ride poverty. The real issue is that poverty causes lots of damage to people, including children; schools cannot fix that, though they certainly can help. In any case, the schools-fix-poverty approach means at the absolute best not solving the issue for a generation - and because of the limits of schools as a fix, almost certainly pushes the issue back another generation. Meanwhile, the focus on schools only reinforces societal and political unwillingness to actually address poverty and inequality.

Submitted by Jackie at: August 6, 2011
If you are a foster child in TN.. involved in a simple "spitball fight" you are the kid sent to an Alternative school. Fair??? I know this because it happened to one of my teenagers while I was a CASA volunteer.

Submitted by jod at: August 6, 2011
As an advocate for kids and a designer facilitator co-creating resilient communities in classrooms, this article frighteningly emphasizes why we need to do this. Everyone loses and makes a paradox of the concept of school as a place for learning when we make policy standards and then enact them without intelligence. Abandoning wisdom is not going to earn a gold star.

Submitted by senora at: August 6, 2011
I wished that legislation could stop the problems of keeping our schools safe and fair for our children. But until we can change the value that is put in our hearts for education we will be making policy until the "cows come home" and things will not change. I can't even list here all the problems that are in our school systems. I taught for 33 years and find teachers struggling for survival themselves. When the system gives more policies to follow it becomes a focus on so many other issues and their skills of good teaching strategies become useless. I am retired and when I reflect on those years I come with this conclusion: My teaching changed not because I was improving my skills,but because of all the rules kept changing. Why did they change? Because each time we were restricted by rules brought on by bad teachers. Just like the classroom. The rules in the class change because of the bad kids and everyone has to suffer.tThe attitudes and values of the system have changed so that everyone is trying to protect themselves and all are overwhelmed. I taught in a relatively safe school system, but by the time I retired I was in a block system of 8 classes of 200+students total with so many documentation chores that limited my time to interact with my students. It often limited my time with my family. This is not healthy for anyone. I could go on and on. Problems in our schools will not change if we make so many new rules that don't change the core of the problem. Many times students will say: This place is like a prison. Well prison is a place for people who break the rules. How can our schools be different for our children? I think that there are schools where administration, teachers, parents, students all have made changes based on attitudes, that are supported and value each participant. It is not impossible to do this, but I believe that it takes focus on a safe environment for all.

Submitted by jrock at: August 5, 2011
I think this article is so true. I have always thought that zero tolerance is so unfair. Let the punishment fit the crime. Food fights should mean clean the cafeteria, not be suspended for a week. Exactly what does that accomplish. Why are students sitting in the hallway is they cannot behave, perhaps this is why they misbehave. Hello, wake up America, our kids deserve our best.Stop sending them home and simply teach them. Decrease the drop out rate by changing policies that send kids home for any and everything.Legislatures across America need to change this policy.

Submitted by Margaret at: August 5, 2011
I wonder if the attendance portion of the No Child Left Behind Act contributes both to expulsions, and to ignoring truancy. If a child is expelled, or suspended, are they disenrolled -- no longer on the roster? If so, their absence doesn't count against the school. And students with fairly minor behavior problems (giving the teacher a dirty look) may also be students who are not doing too well. If they aren't on the roster, then they don't have to take the NCLB tests, and the school may look better. I could be wrong about that, but I see the NCLB act as having all sorts of unintended consequences, many of which seem to guarantee that some children WILL be left behind.

Submitted by Joyce at: August 5, 2011
Bravo for the children's Defense Fund. The costs for prisoners vs pupils are staggering and make no sense in hard economic times. When will policymakers begin to understand the value of investing in prevention?????????

Submitted by mick at: August 5, 2011
most schools are more like "prison planet" then centers for education, already. add in rediciouls and arbitrary iron fist rules, and you have our current situation in a nutshell