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Zero-Tolerance Policies in Schools are Often Destructive, Fueling a School to Prison Pipeline

States are realizing that when it comes to student behavior, positive reinforcement may deliver better results than punitive measures.

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In 2011, a 13-year-old student in Albuquerque, New Mexico burped audibly in class (perhaps the school lunch didn’t agree with him). His instructor summoned the school resource officer, one of a new generation of police officers and specially trained go-betweens stationed in school environments, and the student found himself booked into a juvenile detention facility. He had fallen victim to his school’s zero-tolerance policy, a framework used across the nation to crack down fast and hard on unwanted behaviors, but one that has resulted in what critics are calling a school-to-prison pipeline, as students are fast-tracked to juvenile courts for offenses like writing their names on desks.

It’s a pipeline that consumes some students more than others; students of color and disabled students are being suspended, expelled, and sent into the justice system at much higher rates than their white, nondisabled counterparts. Growing criticism of zero-tolerance policies has highlighted the way they ruin lives, burden the justice system and create more work for everyone, with experts like the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) noting that “research [on such policies] indicates that, as implemented, zero tolerance policies are ineffective in the long run and are related to a number of negative consequences, including increased rates of school drop-out and discriminatory application of school discipline practices.”

Forcing students out of school and onto the street or into the justice system, it turns out, may not be the best way of dealing with behavioral infractions. In recognition of the mounting evidence against zero-tolerance policies and the increasing outcry to radically rethink disciplinary policies, school districts in several parts of the country are now dropping or radically modifying their zero-tolerance policies, including in locales like Broward County, Florida.

Florida is a particularly interesting locale for a test case, since the Florida Code specifically carries a segment discouraging widespread use of such tactics. In Section 1006.13(1), the legislature states:

“It is the intent of the Legislature to promote a safe and supportive learning environment in schools, to protect students and staff from conduct that poses a serious threat to school safety, and to encourage schools to use alternatives to expulsion or referral to law enforcement agencies by addressing disruptive behavior through restitution, civil citation, teen court, neighborhood restorative justice, or similar programs. The Legislature finds that zero-tolerance policies are not intended to be rigorously applied to petty acts of misconduct and misdemeanors, including, but not limited to, minor fights or disturbances. The Legislature finds that zero-tolerance policies must apply equally to all students regardless of their economic status, race, or disability.”

Florida schools, in other words, have been put on notice by the legislature that it wants to see any application of such policies conducted in a fair and reasonable way, and that it would prefer to see schools pursuing alternatives to zero tolerance. Along with schools in New York, Chicago and other locations across the country, Broward County is exploring what that looks like for students, administrators and teachers.

NASP has identified three areas of focus when it comes to replacing zero tolerance with a more holistic and effective disciplinary approach: violence prevention, early intervention, and social skills training and behavioral support. Intervention not just from instructors but also from social workers, siblings, parents, and other potential authority figures is considered an important element of these alternatives to zero tolerance, creating a supportive but firm environment for students who may experience behavioral problems.

Students in schools that are rethinking the zero-tolerance approach to discipline are attending counseling, completing community service, and going to behavior intervention programs when they commit behavioral infractions, rather than being sent to court. This keeps them in the educational environment instead of pushing them out of school, and it minimizes contact with the juvenile justice system. If offenses escalate, students face more severe consequences, culminating in the risk of a referral to court if other means are not effective. The focus on rehabilitation and integration into the school community may reduce the risks that a student will drop out or move on to more violent and antisocial behaviors outside of school—as it stands now, such policies clearly increase dropout and arrest rates, and, in cases like Chicago, are contributing to “ school deserts,” where students have nowhere to go thanks to a combination of zero tolerance policies and school closures.

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