Zero tolerance policies are now standard in most schools nationwide.
Students face immediate suspension or expulsion for breaking certain rules.
The federal government initiated zero tolerance in 1994 with the Gun-Free Schools Act, which required states to expel any student who brought firearms to school.
Since then, the list of offenses triggering an immediate and non-negotiable disciplinary response has grown to include infractions such as cursing in class and dress code violations.
The result has been an overwhelming increase in the number of academic suspensions— especially among African-American youth.
The Southern Poverty Law Center just published a study by Daniel J. Losen and Russell Skiba analyzing four decades of federal Department of Education data on school suspensions from 9,220 public middle schools.
According to the New York Times, results show that from kindergarten through grade 12, the proportion of students suspended at least once almost doubled from 3.7 percent in 1973 to 6.9 percent in 2006.
Racial disparity in suspension rates increased as well, and is especially pronounced between white and black students.
In 2006, 28 percent of black boys and 18 percent of black girls attending middle school were suspended compared to 10 percent of white boys and 4 percent of white girls.
Proponents of zero tolerance policies argue that automatic suspensions are critical tools for school officials to maintain order and discipline.
They claim that removing offenders not only protects other students’ safety, but deters classmates from misbehaving, and creates a more positive learning environment.
The authors of the study disagree. They counter that “despite nearly two decades of implementation of zero tolerance disciplinary policies and their application to mundane and nonviolent misbehavior, there is no evidence that frequent reliance on removing misbehaving students improves school safety or student behavior.”
Instead, say the authors, frequent suspensions “reduce students’ opportunities to learn,” and could be doing more harm than good.
Further research is needed to determine the long-term consequences of all-or-nothing approaches to disciplining students.
In the meantime, as a recent Times editorial points out, suspension rates for black male children remain "disproportionately, devastatingly high." The federal government “clearly needs to do a better job of collecting information on this issue and pushing the states and localities to fix the problem.”
Photo: walknboston/Creative Commons via flickr.