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Zero Tolerance

Is it an idea whose time has passed?

In 2011, a 12-year-old honors student in Wisconsin was arrested, handcuffed, taken to the police station, and threatened with expulsion because he left his pocketknife in his jacket pocket and showed it to friends at school.

More recently, a 7-year-old in Baltimore was suspended after allegedly chewing his breakfast pastry into the shape of gun and saying, “Bang, bang.” And a 9-year-old in Michigan was booted after his birthday cupcakes featured toy soldiers (right).

All three students were disciplined under zero tolerance policies adopted to keep students safe. But many politicians, parents, educators, and administrators are beginning to wonder if the policies aren’t hurting more kids than they’re helping.

“The tide is turning against zero tolerance,” says Ted Wachtel, president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices. The Dignity in Schools campaign, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and others are lobbying against zero tolerance in Washington and in statehouses around the country, says Wachtel. “They believe that by involving the police and throwing kids out of school too readily, we’re actually setting kids up to be in trouble with the law and to go to prison.”

Zero tolerance policies grew out of the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1994, which requires districts to expel students who bring a weapon to school for no less than one year. However, the act narrowly defines ­“weapon” (knives, for instance, are not included) and gives schools leeway to modify the punishment on a case-by-case basis.

Today, most schools have policies far stricter than what is demanded by law. A 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 100 percent of school districts had policies against weapons and fighting, almost 80 percent banned gang activity, and over 90 percent had zero tolerance policies for alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.

A comprehensive study by the American Psychological Association has found that zero tolerance policies do not increase school safety or academic achievement, and that kids disciplined under zero tolerance are more likely to misbehave again.

In 2011, after reviewing research showing that expulsions and suspensions drastically increase students’ chances of ending up in the juvenile justice system, the Department of Justice launched the Supportive School Discipline Initiative to educate administrators and teachers about alternative discipline. (View the webinar series at Alternatives include restorative justice and multi­tiered behavioral health programs, which are designed to help kids improve their behavior while keeping them in school.

—Summer 2013—

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