Zero-tolerance in schools is getting us all wrong
2016 is the year that schools went too far in trying to solve problems. 2013 saw the creation of a new student discipline act to put an end to chardonnay courts (school-based, non-judicial punishments) resulting in suspensions and expulsions for minor misbehavior and fights. 2015 was the year of the problematic yoga pants. The shift in regulations and response to student misbehavior always keeps things interesting.
Zero-tolerance discipline in schools
Since the first year of schooling, schools have sought to teach children the right way to behave and what is expected from them as part of their education. Noticing a pattern in behavior and how it is impacting the daily lives of students has always been part of what educators do. No longer has this been enough.
Back in the early 2000s, schools began to be influenced by mandatory state guidelines that required schools to have zero-tolerance policies. According to research conducted at the University of Washington, approximately 20% of all school suspensions were for simple disciplinary infractions. That number rose to nearly 50% between 2006 and 2010. The decision came at a time when schools nationwide were scrambling to meet the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) goals, and told students and parents that any misbehavior that wouldn’t warrant a suspension would be tolerated in the hope that it would change students’ behavior. Then-president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), Ken Kang, stated that “almost any mistake … can be absorbed by the student.” The majority of suspensions and expulsions went to under-performing students, but ironically, they weren’t actually the problem. Most of the issues were the ones stemming from students having authority over their own behavior.
Changing the behavior of students to conform to codes of behavior started to morph into causing serious consequences for students, particularly those in lower socioeconomic groups. Pushing kids out of class is bad for schools’ reputations, making teachers feel like more of a referee instead of a coach, whose job it is to help students succeed. This type of school culture is not only counterproductive and outdated, but it creates the perception that children and parents are incapable of self-regulation.
Zero-tolerance has come to embody an outright invasion of students’ personal lives. It has gone from an easy strategy for schools to create their own internal guidelines to a one-size-fits-all solution that often leads to more problems than solutions.
The result: consequences instead of solutions
A relatively new trend among schools has been the use of behavioral support teams to create a set of practices for students. While it is ideal to be able to self-regulate, it takes resources and time away from actually educating students. Most behavioral support teams were developed after the pendulum swung too far toward zero-tolerance, and so now districts and schools are focused on giving more support to children instead of removing them. This creates its own set of problems. As students are identified as “conformable” students, they are constantly under-funded for behavioral supports and without proper guidance and support they will end up with a severe pattern of behavior.
One possible solution for improving the outcome of zero-tolerance is to adopt programs, like the Student Development of Discipline Center (SDDC) model that is being used in West Virginia’s Fairfax County School District (VCSD). The SDDC model is different than the traditional behavioral response models currently used in schools. These models focus on reinforcing behavior with reinforcement instead of actual punishment. SDDC follows the same principles, but instead of punishing students, it teaches students how to discipline themselves in a way that promotes healthy behavior. The program was originally developed by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (NCFF), but the VCSD used it to adapt the model to fit in their culture of complying with and supporting administrators. The SDDC has reduced chronic tardiness by 50%, while offering a safe environment for students to learn. While it still has problems, the use of the SDDC in schools has been successful and can be used as a case study to show that zero-tolerance works at improving behavior in school.
Based on previous research
Advocates for this model are pointing to several recent studies that indicate the use of the SDDC model can achieve multiple positive outcomes that reduce both short-term and long-term conflicts between students and their schools. While zero-tolerance disciplinary policies have gone too far for some students, their use can create the opportunity for other students to grow.