Book Review: Ending Zero Tolerance: The Crisis of Absolute School Discipline

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black comp finalIn November 2015, a video of a young girl in South Carolina’s Spring Valley High School classroom being “thrown to the ground” by Richland County Sheriff Deputy Ben Fields swept the nation. In March, another video surfaced of a Baltimore school officer kicking a high school student. In May, an autistic 10-year old girl was dragged and handcuffed by police in Louisiana. This comes on top of scientific data declaring that children as young as preschool age receive excessive punishments in school and after-school settings. Children of color are specifically more at risk, receiving expulsions or suspensions when their white counterparts receive referral to medical care or a warning.

These types of excessive punishment meted out upon school-age children are the subject matter of the upcoming release by Derek W. Black, “Ending Zero Tolerance: The Crisis of Absolute School Discipline.” Black, a professor of law at the University of Southern California, draws upon a wealth of individual narratives, case law and thorough analysis to highlight the irreparable, lifelong harm zero-tolerance-based punishments are having on youth today.

The first part of Black’s book, divided into two, describes what brought about this educational crisis. Writes Black:

One of the most obvious flaws or irrationalities of zero tolerance and harsh discipline is that they lump so many dissimilar students in to the same groups. The first grader whose mother puts a cough drop in his backpack without him knowing is treated the same as the seventh grader who knows that cough drops are prohibited but brings them anyway because his throat hurts and he does not want to miss school. And the seventh-grade cough-drop smuggler is treated the same as the student who brings Advil to school and sells it. And the Advil-distributing student is treated the same as the student who sells steroids or marijuana to his classmates. They are all drug offenders according to their schools and subject to long-term suspension.

Black’s book is necessary reading for educators and those who work with youth, whether during classroom hours or in an after-school setting. It posits questions about the role of discipline — and how best to ensure that discipline helps children succeed, rather than break them down. It is common knowledge that expulsions and suspensions lead to a higher school dropout rate and correlate with higher levels of unemployment and imprisonment. Of particular note is Black’s argument that, “like inadequate funding or teacher quality, dysfunctional discipline policy prevents students from receiving adequate and equal educational opportunities.”

What is the function of a teacher? Black asks. To teach, to instruct. And so, he questions, should we choose to teach our children to respond to another human being with violence? Or should we choose the path of least pain — understanding and compassion?

Children are learning all the time. Their brains constantly take information from the world around them and process it into an understanding of the rules of life. “In just a two-year period between 2013 and 2015,” writes Black, “numerous stories made national and regional news, including stories of school resource officers and officials choking, handcuffing, restraining, and locking up in isolation rooms elementary and middle-school students, including those with special needs.” Thus, the second half of Black’s book offers suggestions on how to “make discipline rational.”

What we realize, reading Black’s clear, logical, prose, is that authority figures meting out drastic punishments are teaching children. They are teaching children that violence is right. In effect, these authority figures are saying: You do not have the right to protect yourself. You have the right to be hurt. You do not have the right to be treated with respect. You do not matter.

“Harsh discipline practices,” writes Black, “are contrary to many of our many basic values, both social and legal.” This book offers information for school counselors, teachers, after-school program leaders and administrators to consider when establishing the best policies for disciplinary measures among the youth they serve.

Further Reading:

“Closing the School Discipline Gap: Equitable Remedies for Excessive Exclusion,” by Daniel J. Losen, Teachers College Press, 2015, 288 pages. An examination of the role race, gender and disability play in unequal school suspensions and posits solutions from successful models of working school disciplinary programs.

“Responsive School Discipline: Essentials for Elementary School Leaders,” by Chip Wood and Babs Freeman-Loftis, Center for Responsive Schools, Inc., 2011, 260 pages. A practical handbook for nonviolent discipline in schools based on mutual respect from two elementary school educators and administrators.

“Improving Learning Environments: School Discipline and Student Achievement in Comparative Perspective,” by Richard Arum and Melissa Velez, Stanford University Press, 2012, 360 pages. A compendium of work by leading scholars exploring the relationship between school environments and student achievement through detailed case studies and analysis.

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