Zero Tolerance and Alternative Discipline Strategies

By Skiba, Russell | National Association of School Psychologists. Communique, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Zero Tolerance and Alternative Discipline Strategies


Skiba, Russell, National Association of School Psychologists. Communique


Schools have a responsibility to use research-based, effective means to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment. Teachers cannot teach, and students cannot learn, in a climate marked by chaos and disruption.

There is controversy, however, over how best to achieve that goal. Since the early 1990s, increasing incidence of campus violence led many schools to adopt the disciplinary philosophy of zero tolerance. Originally used primarily for drug enforcement, the term became widely adopted in schools as a policy that mandates severe consequences regardless of the seriousness of the behavior or differences in circumstances. In 1994, the Gun Free Schools Act introduced a national policy of zero tolerance for weapons in schools through a mandatory calendar year expulsion for possession of firearms. Some states, board of education agencies, and schools have expanded zero tolerance considerably beyond federal law, suspending and expelling students for drug and alcohol abuse, threats, fighting, and even failure to complete homework.

OVERVIEW OF ZERO TOLERANCE POLICIES AND PRACTICES

Zero tolerance policies assume that removing students who engage in disruptive behavior will maintain a safe learning environment as well as deter others from disruption.

Characteristics of zero tolerance policies. Although there is no single accepted definition of the term zero tolerance, the approach is characterized by the use of more severe penalties, primarily suspension and expulsion, for both major and minor violations of the school disciplinary code, in order to send a message that certain behaviors will not be tolerated. While most schools use zero tolerance for more egregious behaviors, media accounts have described hundreds of cases in which students are suspended or expelled for what appear to be relatively trivial infractions, including possession of squirt guns, guns cut out of paper, paper clips, plastic knives brought in a lunch box to cut chicken, aspirin, or organic cough drops.

Outcomes of zero tolerance policies. Although widely accepted as a no-nonsense approach to violence prevention, there is little or no evidence that strict zero tolerance policies have contributed to reducing student misbehavior or improving school safety (e.g., Skiba & Knesting, 2002; Skiba et al., 2006). Studies of suspension have consistently documented that at-risk students do not change their behavior as a result of suspension, that suspension is associated with school dropout and juvenile incarceration, and that schools with higher rates of suspension and expulsion tend to have lower test scores and a less satisfactory school climate. In short, there are no data that zero tolerance contributes in any way to school safety or improved student behavior.

Although the causal link is unclear, there is some correlational evidence that zero tolerance is associated with increased suspensions and expulsions for students of color. African American students have consistently been found to be suspended two to three times as often as other students, and similarly overrepresented in office referrals, corporal punishment, and school expulsion. This overrepresentation has not been found to be due to poverty, nor is there evidence that African Americans receive more suspensions due to increased rates or intensity of misbehavior (Skiba & Rausch, 2006).

ALTERNATIVES TO ZERO TOLERANCE: TEACH, DON'T JUST PUNISH

As concerns about the fairness and effectiveness of zero tolerance discipline have mounted, and because the 2001 No Child Left Behind regulations have required schools to decrease use of suspension and expulsion, many schools and school districts are examining alternative strategies that can prevent and deter school violence without sacrificing students' educational opportunity. Such alternatives include the following practices.

Graduated discipline. Many districts ensure that consequences are matched with the seriousness of the offense (sometimes termed "common sense discipline")- Serious incidents that truly threaten the safety of other students and staff continue to receive more severe consequences, but less serious behaviors are met with graduated responses, such as reprimands, restitution, counseling, parent contact, and/or behavioral contracts. …

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