School Discipline at a Crossroads: From Zero Tolerance to Early Response

By Skiba, Russell J.; Peterson, Reece L. | Exceptional Children, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

School Discipline at a Crossroads: From Zero Tolerance to Early Response


Skiba, Russell J., Peterson, Reece L., Exceptional Children


The shocking and tragic violence that has played out in our nation's schools in the last 2 years has elevated the status of school discipline from an issue of perennial concern to one of national urgency. No longer can small rural districts assume that violence is an inner-city issue and that they are immune from problems of school disruption or violence. No longer can we expect special educators working alone to solve all problems of emotional and behavioral disorders. Rather, it has become clear that the threat of school violence cuts across class, geographical location, and the presence or absence of a disability label.

Faced with disruptive and aggressive behavior, a typical response has been the punishment and exclusion of students exhibiting challenging behavior (Skiba & Peterson, 1999). Well-defined disciplinary requirements and attention to school security have a place in schools in maintaining order and ensuring safety. Yet harsh and punitive disciplinary strategies have not proven sufficient to foster a school climate that can prevent the occurrence of school violence. Rather, a broader perspective, stressing early identification, comprehensive planning, prevention, and instruction in important social skills, is necessary if schools are to prevent the tragedies that happen too often in our schools. This article explores new perspectives in school discipline and violence prevention, and suggests effective strategies for dealing with disruptive and violent behavior in schools.

CURRENT PRACTICE IN SCHOOL DISCIPLINE

The key importance of school discipline in preventing school violence has been highlighted by data demonstrating the relationship between day-to-day school disciplinary disruptions and more serious violence. In the recent National Center for Educational Statistics report, Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-97 (Heaviside, Rowand, Williams, & Farris, 1998), a dear relationship emerged between low-level school disruption and serious school violence. Among schools reporting at least one serious discipline issue, 28% also reported at least one crime; in contrast, only 3% of schools with minor or no reported discipline problems reported the presence of crime. These less dramatic, but more frequent school and classroom disruptions, may also play a part in shaping perceptions about the safety of schools. In an examination of violence in rural school districts, Peterson, Beekley, Speaker, and Pietrzak (1996) reported that 52% of teachers and administrators in rural schools believed that violence was increasing at the middle/high school level. But the behaviors they perceived as escalating most dramatically were not the types of deadly violence that appear to concern us most--drugs, gang involvement, or weapons-carrying--but rather behaviors that indicate incivility, such as rumors, verbal intimidation and threats, pushing and shoving by students, and sexual harassment. Perhaps perceptions of school safety are shaped as much by serious violent episodes as by overall perceptions of school climate.

If there is a reliable relationship between the frequent less serious disruption and serious violent crime, efforts to improve the overall school disciplinary climate may well make an important contribution to the prevention of school violence. By implementing comprehensive programs that improve overall school climate and reduce minor disruption, schools may also be reducing the risk of more serious violent incidents that appear to be associated with higher levels of minor disruption. Such data support the argument that the problem of violence in our schools is related to a breakdown in civility. More importantly, they reaffirm the value in studying school discipline and in particular preventive alternatives to current practice. Indeed, recent findings suggest that current school practice in discipline does not appear to be effective in addressing problems of disruption and violence in schools. …

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