Zero-Tolerance Policies in Schools are Often Destructive, Fueling a School to Prison Pipeline

AlterNet- by S.E. Smith

In 2011, a 13-year-old student in Albuquerque, New Mexico burped audibly in class (perhaps the school lunch didn’t agree with him). His instructor summoned the school resource officer, one of a new generation ofpolice officers and specially trained go-betweens stationed in school environments, and the student found himself booked into a juvenile detention facility. He had fallen victim to his school’s zero-tolerance policy, a framework used across the nation to crack down fast and hard on unwanted behaviors, but one that has resulted in what critics are calling a school-to-prison pipeline, as students are fast-tracked to juvenile courts for offenses like writing their names on desks.  

It’s a pipeline that consumes some students more than others; students of color and disabled students are being suspended, expelled, and sent into the justice system at much higher rates than their white, nondisabled counterparts. Growing criticism of zero-tolerance policies has highlighted the way they ruin lives, burden the justice system and create more work for everyone, with experts like the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) noting that “research [on such policies] indicates that, as implemented, zero tolerance policies are ineffective in the long run and are related to a number of negative consequences, including increased rates of school drop-out and discriminatory application of school discipline practices.”

Forcing students out of school and onto the street or into the justice system, it turns out, may not be the best way of dealing with behavioral infractions. In recognition of the mounting evidence against zero-tolerance policies and the increasing outcry to radically rethink disciplinary policies, school districts in several parts of the country are now dropping or radically modifying their zero-tolerance policies, including in locales like Broward County, Florida.

Florida is a particularly interesting locale for a test case, since the Florida Code specifically carries a segment discouraging widespread use of such tactics. In Section 1006.13(1), the legislature states:

“It is the intent of the Legislature to promote a safe and supportive learning environment in schools, to protect students and staff from conduct that poses a serious threat to school safety, and to encourage schools to use alternatives to expulsion or referral to law enforcement agencies by addressing disruptive behavior through restitution, civil citation, teen court, neighborhood restorative justice, or similar programs. The Legislature finds that zero-tolerance policies are not intended to be rigorously applied to petty acts of misconduct and misdemeanors, including, but not limited to, minor fights or disturbances. The Legislature finds that zero-tolerance policies must apply equally to all students regardless of their economic status, race, or disability.”

Florida schools, in other words, have been put on notice by the legislature that it wants to see any application of such policies conducted in a fair and reasonable way, and that it would prefer to see schools pursuing alternatives to zero tolerance. Along with schools in New York, Chicago and other locations across the country, Broward County is exploring what that looks like for students, administrators and teachers.

NASP has identified three areas of focus when it comes to replacing zero tolerance with a more holistic and effective disciplinary approach: violence prevention, early intervention, and social skills training and behavioral support. Intervention not just from instructors but also from social workers, siblings, parents, and other potential authority figures is considered an important element of these alternatives to zero tolerance, creating a supportive but firm environment for students who may experience behavioral problems.

Students in schools that are rethinking the zero-tolerance approach to discipline are attending counseling, completing community service, and going to behavior intervention programs when they commit behavioral infractions, rather than being sent to court. This keeps them in the educational environment instead of pushing them out of school, and it minimizes contact with the juvenile justice system. If offenses escalate, students face more severe consequences, culminating in the risk of a referral to court if other means are not effective. The focus on rehabilitation and integration into the school community may reduce the risks that a student will drop out or move on to more violent and antisocial behaviors outside of school—as it stands now, such policies clearly increase dropout and arrest rates, and, in cases like Chicago, are contributing to “school deserts,” where students have nowhere to go thanks to a combination of zero tolerance policies and school closures.

In Broward County, officials are already seeing results, with far fewer students ending up in front of judges and in the hands of police officers. While their program is still new, it has promise as an alternative to the seemingly standard zero-tolerance approach, and it may provide a blueprint for modifying other districts.

Mark Jones (a pseudonym) teaches middle school in the suburbs of Chicago. His school has never used zero tolerance, instead relying on a system called Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS). Effectively, the system uses positive reinforcement to cultivate desired behaviors in students, rewarding them for activities like walking on the correct side in the hallway and passing classes. The rewards are customized to the student, allowing more reinforcement for students who are struggling to encourage them to keep doing better.

“The idea is that the kids who don’t behave will be motivated by these external rewards to behave. It also means that kids who do break the rules are not punished in the normal sense,” he explains. Instead, students who break the rules receive an intervention where staff meet with them, discuss why what the student did was wrong, and work on improvements for the future.” However, he points out, “for teachers, after the seventh or tenth offense, this can be a little frustrating. There need to be limits, and if the intervention isn’t working, within the PBIS system, it is difficult to pursue other means of discipline.”

Another Chicago-area teacher, Marie Wells (also a pseudonym), is in a district that once relied heavily on zero tolerance and now is embracing aspects of other discipline approaches, although “we still have zero tolerance for things like gang activity, threats, physical fighting, and bringing weapons to school.” AlterNet talked with her about the changes she’s observing at her school as discipline methods shift and her high school English students encounter a new learning environment.

“I see the kids after they’ve been through the PBIS system…PBIS is a very popular initiative for middle schools in the area, so my students are familiar with that structure. While it isn’t feasible to do some things they do in a huge school of 4,000 high school students (like rewarding them for walking on the correct side of the hallway), we do try to do as much positive reinforcement as possible.”

Notably, her school offers a particularly important option for disabled students: “We also have a Positive Intervention Room where we send students with IEPs [Individualized Education Plans, documents used to address specific accommodation and behavioral needs of disabled students] who are misbehaving instead of sending them to in school suspension. There, they work with a teacher to create a behavior plan that they then present to their teacher. If that plan gets broken, they are back to creating a new plan. It’s really effective because it gives the kids onus over their own behavior. I wish we did it for everyone.”

Giving these students more control, autonomy and responsibility within this framework encourages them to take a more active role in the school community, and in turn, that’s creating better behaviors in the halls of her large school and leading to a drop in disciplinary problems for disabled students. It’s a proactive move, one that recognizes the higher disciplinary rate overall for disabled students and aims to correct the issue by addressing the core of the problem: what happens to students when they engage in unacceptable behavior.

Wells sees a difference in her school, and notes that even when zero-tolerance policies are applied, they’re now more likely to result in in-school suspension and intervention, rather than sending students through the justice system or expelling them.

Are we seeing a kinder, gentler approach to school discipline in the United States? The tide, at least in some states, appears to be turning. That is very good news for our children, who deserve to be educated in schools that function as communities, rather than as dictatorships under martial law.


s.e. smith is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Bitch, Feministe, Global Comment, the Sun Herald, the Guardian, and other publications. Follow smith on Twitter: @sesmithwrites.

One thought on “Zero-Tolerance Policies in Schools are Often Destructive, Fueling a School to Prison Pipeline

  1. “It’s a pipeline that consumes some students more than others; students of color and disabled students are being suspended, expelled, and sent into the justice system at much higher rates than their white, nondisabled counterparts.”

    One might almost believe it was planned.

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