The Impact of Zero Tolerance School Discipline Policies: Issues of Exclusionary Discipline

By Nelson, Amy C. | National Association of School Psychologists. Communique, December 2008 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Zero Tolerance School Discipline Policies: Issues of Exclusionary Discipline


Nelson, Amy C., National Association of School Psychologists. Communique


In 1977, a Safe School Study conducted by the U.S. Congress raised awareness of school violence and caused a wave of actions still in effect today. In their examination of American schools, they found that 282,000 students reported incidences of assault or harassment each month. Students were not alone; over 5,000 teachers reported being assaulted each month as well.

What did this report claim are the contributors to school violence? Casella (2001) pointed out that the Safe School Study made four important assertions. First, crime in the neighborhoods surrounding schools has been identified as a large contributor to violence in the schools. Violence from the outside is being brought in behind school walls. Second, large class sizes also contribute. It is harder for teachers to manage large classrooms resulting in less student monitoring. Third, when school administration does not consistently enforce school policy, violence proliferates. Students pay less attention to school rules and, therefore, do not adhere to them. Devine (1996) refers to this as the "marshmallow effect." A lax school policy causes students to not take authority seriously. Lastly, the report claimed that the discipline policies established in many schools was discriminatory. As a result, more violence erupts in response to an unjust system.

SCHOOL VIOLENCE POLICIES ARE DISCRIMINATORY?

Some now argue that school discipline policies, in response to violence issues, are biased and actually make matters worse. Marxist and critical theorists have addressed how biased systems contribute to school violence (Casella, 2001). Essentially, views of violence are shaped by class experiences and the neighborhood in which one lives. To many, violence is viewed as a consequence of poverty. Duncan and Brooks-Gunn (2000) found that poor children are 2.2 times more likely to experience a violent crime. This implies that poor neighborhoods are exposed to more violent episodes, which in turn, affect the school culture in those areas.

Immigrants and minorities have been at the forefront when it comes to stereotypes with regard to violence (Casella, 2001). Common attitudes are often racist and classist. Many individuals believe that only minorities and the poor commit violent acts. Some theorists argue that school violence is a protest against the inequities in the system, such as unequal distributions of educational funds and a curriculum that only caters to White middle-class individuals. Therefore, students are rebelling against schools, and each other, in order to voice their feelings of injustice.

Fenning and Rose (2007) also attribute high rates of school suspension and expulsion rates to racism and bias, specifically institutional racism. School policies are often designed by individuals raised with White middle-class values and the assumption is made that all students are raised with a similar perspective. In their research, Fenning and Rose discovered that minority students were more likely to be suspended for nonviolent issues, such as class disruption and disrespecting teacher authority. Thus, these students are more likely to be punished because of teacher lack of behavior management, lack of connection with the teacher or school, or unclear classroom rules. Yet, when punishing students, schools fail to examine whether student disrespect could be the result of school factors as well. Delpit (1995) also believes that cultural differences between students and teachers cause increases in referrals, including discipline and special education, because of biases held by teachers. Delpit argues that schools are often structured from a White middle-class perspective and if teachers are not direct and clear in their expectations, students who do not come from a White or middle-class background are at a disadvantage. Students who are less knowledgeable of the rules are then more likely to be referred to the office and receive punishment, when in reality it was a result of cultural miscommunication. …

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