Stop the Presses – Zero tolerance is over zealous and counterproductive


by Mike Kroll

The Zephyr, Galesburg


In recent years school officials nationwide have broadly adopted ever stricter disciplinary codes and implemented Zero Tolerance policies for a broad array of student actions that range from serious to incredibly petty. At the same time that we reportedly teach our sons and daughters about the wonderful privileges of freedom we have systematically denied them those exact protections in school as we have created a system that makes it increasingly easy to deny students an education. While we claim that such action is necessary in today's world so that other students may remain safe as they receive their education the end result is that many students get culled from the herd for the mere convenience of school officials.

Last week the Galesburg Police led a drug sniffing dog through the halls and parking lots of Galesburg High School at the request of school officials. During this thorough search it was discovered that two students had very small amounts of marijuana in their locker and a third had beer in his car. According to Police Chief Dave Christensen both of the lockers contained less than 2.5 grams of marijuana each, or in the exact words of Chief Christensen, “petty amounts.” (For readers less familiar with metric measurements let me tell you that a freshly minted U.S. penny coin weighs exactly 2.5 grams!) Christensen said that in one of those lockers a pocket knife and pipe were also found so that student also faces penalties for having drug paraphernalia and a weapon in school.

All of these “offenses” fall under School District 205's “Zero Tolerance” policy as defined in the official disciplinary handbook with a minimum penalty of a 10-day suspension from school and a maximum penalty of expulsion for up to two calendar years. Searches such as this are typically conducted without any requirement that probable cause exists and in all cases school and police officials act in concert to build a case against the student. Students have no right to refuse to answer questions or to have a parental or legal representative present during questioning. In fact, refusing to incriminate oneself is itself an offense of the disciplinary code as is the refusal to inform on one's peers. There is no presumption of innocence as the process presumes guilt, has exceedingly casual rules of evidence and only reluctantly offers the opportunity for a defense.

Nowhere else in America today do we come so close to being a police state as in our public schools. Yet virtually few of us challenge such a counterproductive system that casually throws children out of school for minor offenses that aren't even a crime anywhere else or a very minor violation punishable with a token fine. Expelling a child from school should be seen as a very drastic act and used only in the case of exceptionally egregious conduct.

Nationally these uncompromising “zero tolerance” school disciplinary policies are justified by school officials who claim school violence is out of control and that consistent severe penalties will deter student misbehavior and “create a school climate more conducive to learning.” These assertions are made over and over again with little or no hard evidence other than cherry-picked anecdotes and those few parents who do object are squelched by assurances that the vast majority of other parents support the strict rules and want “trouble-making students” removed from the school. Opposition whithers along with the life prospects of students who are victims of this simple-minded approach to school discipline.

Last year however the American Psychological Association released a lengthy report compiled by a task forced that studied both these policies and the actual empirical evidence of their impacts on schools and students. The results were anything but a ringing endorsement of zero tolerance policies.

In an era of educational policy defined by accountability, it is appropriate and important to examine the extent to which any widely-implemented philosophy, practice, or policy has demonstrated, through sound research, that it has contributed to furthering important educational goals. ...The duty of schools to preserve the safety and integrity of the learning environment is incontrovertible. There is no disagreement with the universal goals that zero tolerance shares with any school disciplinary system: to preserve a safe climate, to encourage a positive and productive learning climate, to teach students the personal and interpersonal skills they will need to be successful in school and society, to reduce the likelihood of future disruption. It is the means to these ends that have created controversy around zero tolerance policies. Ultimately, an examination of the evidence shows that zero tolerance policies as implemented have failed to achieve the goals of an effective system of school discipline.” APA Zero Tolerance Task Force Report (August 2006)

While there is a commonly held belief that school violence, substance abuse and classroom disruptions have steadily increased over the past decade the evidence simply doesn't bare this out. National data on school violence, rather than perceptions based on media reports, show that school violence have remained stable in the most affected schools and actually decreased in most other schools since the mid-1980s. Trend data from the National Institutes of Health show that while experimentation and occasional use of  marijuana and alcohol by teenagers has remained stable over the past decade the frequency of use has actually declined slightly. Use of “harder” drugs by teens, excluding abuse of prescription drugs, has shown a consistent downward trend. The majority of students disciplined under zero tolerance rules have not been under the influence while in school or caught selling to another student but merely in possession of small amounts (personal use weight) of drugs or alcohol.

A point commonly made about zero tolerance rules are that they promote consistency along with “swift and sure” punishments. But the APA study found that this is not supported by the evidence. There are wide differences in the rates of suspension and expulsion across schools and within schools by student demographics. Poor, disadvantaged and minority students are far more likely to face school discipline than students from wealthy or professional homes.

“A key assumption of zero tolerance policy is that the removal of disruptive students will result in a safer climate for others. Although the assumption is strongly intuitive, data on a number of indicators of school climate have shown the opposite effect, that is, that schools with higher rates of school suspension and expulsion appear to have less satisfactory ratings of school climate, less satisfactory school governance structures, and to spend a disproportionate amount of time on disciplinary matters. Perhaps more importantly, recent research indicates a negative relationship between the use of school suspension and expulsion and school-wide academic achievement, even when controlling for demographics such as socioeconomic status.” APA Zero Tolerance Task Force Report (August 2006)

Just as important as the immediate consequences in schools are the future consequences for students who are suspended or expelled from school due to disciplinary code violations. Not only do far fewer of these students ever earn a high school diploma or attend college they are more likely to commit serious criminal offenses as young adults. In today's world denying a child a high school degree is a most serious punishment that has far reaching lifetime consequences. Over-reacting to a youthful indiscretion can actually mean the difference between producing a successful contributing adult or destroying such an opportunity.

“...Zero tolerance has not been shown to improve school climate or school safety. Its application in suspension and expulsion has not proven an effective means of improving student behavior. It has not resolved, and may have exacerbated, minority over-representation in school punishments. Zero tolerance policies as applied appear to run counter to our best knowledge of child development. By changing the relationship of education and juvenile justice, zero tolerance may shift the locus of discipline from relatively inexpensive actions in the school setting to the highly costly processes of arrest and incarceration. In so doing, zero tolerance policies have created unintended consequences for students, families, and communities.” APA Zero Tolerance Task Force Report (August 2006)

Isn't it about time that people in this community dismiss simplistic jingoistic “solutions” to school problems. Real educational success will not come from adopting a one-size fits all approach to school discipline. Every student is different just as the circumstances of every disciplinary issue are different and we need more discretion and individual attention, not less. We need to reserve the ultimate punishment for only the most serious offenses and even then we need to leave room for discretion. We should teach our children good citizenship by example just as America should promote Democracy by example. It is time to return due process, common sense and proportionality back to our school disciplinary code.