Zero-Tolerance Policies in U.S. Schools are Ineffective and Unaffordable

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Despite public concerns about youth crime, particularly in schools, research has shown that policies based on incapacitation theory have failed utterly to affect crime rates. In fact, while youth crime rates have fallen significantly over the last 30 years, they have continued to plummet despite recent trends towards community-based alternatives (e.g., the ‘Missouri Model’). The evidence suggests that not only do punitive disciplinary approaches often fail they are also unnecessary. It is particularly troubling, then, to consider the police presence and draconian disciplinary measures that have increasingly found their way into America’s schools.

Schools typically have rules forbidding mobile phone use, profanity and the like. Taken at face value, these rules seem sensible and necessary to ensure order. However, when combined with broad zero-tolerance policies that often mandate inordinately harsh punishments like suspension or even expulsion from school for trivial infractions, breaking such rules can have dire consequences.

For example, a student suspended from classes for several weeks as a result of disruptive behavior may have significant trouble completing missed coursework upon returning to school. Additionally, the youth may well be unsupervised during their suspension. Here, the possibility of gang involvement or exposure to other negative influences can be significant. Youth of color and/or lower socioeconomic status are at particularly high risk in this respect.

Critically, there is often little investigation of causal factors behind students’ “aberrant” behaviors. Many youth act out as a response to previous trauma — sometimes within their families — or as a result of undiagnosed learning disabilities. In such instances, sending them home and keeping them from their studies for weeks at a time seems entirely counterproductive, aggravating rather than mitigating the problems at hand.

Even more disturbing, children are now sometimes subjected to arrest, physical restraint, and even the use of tear gas and pepper spray by police officers and security guards in schools. Media and researchers have identified these trends and the related school-to-prison pipeline, in which troubled and disadvantaged youth are singled out and schooled for a future in prison rather than university or the trades. Actions once viewed as minor transgressions—normal, if annoying, examples of adolescent socialization—have now been criminalized.

Given this untenable situation, it is imperative that other less punitive and more effective strategies for dealing with troubled (or merely troublesome) youth be explored and implemented.  These strategies should aim to explicitly benefit students, their schools, and their communities in the long term.

For example:

  • Less formal mediation is a practical alternative to law enforcement involvement or strict, zero-tolerance responses to misbehavior.
  • Academic evaluations should be used to generate individualized plans to address students’ unique needs (e.g., learning disabilities or developmental deficiencies.)
  • In addition to identifying students struggling with mental health issues, school social workers and psychologists can work to unmask and address conflicts or instabilities in students’ homes. Recent studies of trauma-informed care support such efforts.

In line with this thinking, California has made significant progress this year with the passage of four bills aimed primarily at keeping at-risk youth in school and out of the criminal justice system. Notably, the legislation calls for community service and other restorative disciplinary tactics to be tried before administrators may suspend students. As well, schools will no longer be able to routinely deny enrollment to youth who have had previous trouble with the law.

While suspension and expulsion can appeal to harried administrators and teachers as “quick fixes” for visible disciplinary problems, the potential collateral negative consequences and costs of these sanctions are clear. It is common knowledge that the less education a person has, the less money that person is likely to earn over their lifetime. Where unaddressed social or psychological co-factors exist, the probability of lower wages—and potential reliance on public funds—seems even greater as troubled youth transition to adulthood.

Finally, consider the expense of incarcerating someone over time versus providing them with needed support early on that could very well keep them out of the criminal justice system to begin with. Clearly, the smart money is on keeping kids—even troubled ones—in class and ensuring they graduate. It is imperative, then, to reframe students’ negative behaviors as just that: childish behaviors that can be addressed, changed, and grown out of; not crimes that must be punished.

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