Do 'Zero Tolerance' School Discipline Policies Go Too Far?

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Interviews with more than a dozen school administrators, experts and child advocates suggest that the reasons for the increased reliance on suspensions, and the accompanying racial gaps, are varied and complex.

They say zero-tolerance policies and an associated zero-tolerance mind-set have spread over the past quarter-century. Throughout American society, there have been numerous efforts to get tough on crime. Teachers often face enormous difficulties getting unruly students to stay after school for detention or to even get parents to come in for a conference. Films like Lean on Me have popularized a no-nonsense approach to school discipline. School segregation has increased, and many urban schools have high concentrations of students living in extreme poverty. No Child Left Behind has put such an emphasis on math and reading test scores that schools may have less time to focus on meeting children's social and emotional needs. And a few high-profile instances of school violence, like the Columbine shootings, have generated widespread fear of youth violence among school administrators and the public. Meanwhile, teachers and administrators may unfairly stereotype minority schoolchildren's actions based on implicit racism.

"How unconscious bias manifests itself in an educational system is through expulsion and suspension," says Andre Perry, an associate director for educational initiatives at Loyola University's Institute for Quality and Equity in Education in New Orleans.

Several experts mention the application of the "broken-windows theory" of policing to school discipline. That theory, first introduced in 1982 by political scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, posits that cracking down on seemingly minor and superficial problems, like broken windows or panhandling, helps prevent more-serious crimes. The school-based version of the theory holds that taking a tough stance against small infractions, like tardiness and uniform violations, decreases the number of larger infractions, including fights and weapon possession. The challenge, of course, is that fixing a child is not as easy as repairing a broken window, and the days or weeks spent exiled from school in a home or neighborhood environment often make students less likely to comply with school rules.

"I have no problem with requiring students to take off their hats in school. But sending them home when they won't take off their hats? I have a problem with that," says Jane Sundius, the Education and Youth Development Program director at the Open Society Institute–Baltimore, which advocates on such issues as school discipline and youth incarceration. Sundius is particularly troubled by reports of schools suspending prekindergarten students in some communities, including in Maryland, where she lives and works. "A 4-year-old accused of 'assaulting a teacher' is not assaulting a teacher," she says. "They are having a temper tantrum."

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