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Down with Zero Tolerance

September 2006

It might be time to ease up a bit when it comes to disruptive students and detention. The American Psychological Association (APA) recently reviewed 10 years of research to determine whether zero tolerance policies have made schools safer. The answer? That would be a big no. As stated in the report: "Many incidents that result in disciplinary action in school happen because of an adolescent's or a child's poor judgment-not due to an intention to do harm. Zero tolerance policies may exacerbate the normal challenges of adolescence and possibly punish a teenager more severely than warranted. Zero tolerance policies ignore the concept of intent even though this is a central theme in American concepts and systems of justice."

Based on the current research findings, the APA recommends the following changes to zero tolerance policies:

  • Allow more flexibility with discipline and rely more on teachers' and administrators' expertise within their own school buildings.
  • Have teachers and other professional staff be the first point of contact regarding discipline incidents.
  • Use zero tolerance disciplinary removals for only the most serious and severe disruptive behaviors.
  • Replace one-size-fits-all discipline. Gear the discipline to the seriousness of the infraction.
  • Require school police and related security officers to have training in adolescent development.
  • Attempt to reconnect alienated youth or students who are at-risk for behavior problems or violence with the mainstream student body. Use threat-assessment procedures to identify those at risk before the offending behavior is exhibited.
  • Develop effective alternatives for learning for those students whose behavior threatens the discipline or safety of the school. But ensure that these methods keep offenders in the educational system while also keeping other students and teachers safe.


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