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Zero-Tolerance Education Policies Are Destroying Young People's Lives

All too often, the debate about school reform has wrongly emphasized pushing troubled children out of school, rather than making systemic improvements.
 
 
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It is too early to know whether the current wave of school reforms will lead to lasting improvements in student achievement. But it is not too early to note that many of these reforms have a troubling consequence: a doubling-down on harsh, ineffective zero-tolerance discipline policies. All too often, the debate about school reform has wrongly emphasized pushing troubled children out of school, rather than making systemic improvements so that all students have the support they need to learn.

For that reason, advocates nationwide are embracing efforts to improve school climate. School leaders are recognizing the ineffectiveness of zero tolerance. And as states grapple with untenable youth-prison budgets and Congress prepares to debate reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a movement is building to end the ineffective, expensive, and tragic era of zero tolerance.

Nationwide, suspension and expulsion rates are at crisis levels. The most recent data from the National Center on Education Statistics showed that more than 3.3 million students were suspended or expelled in 2006 -- nearly one in 14. Of those, fewer than one in 10 were for violent offenses. The vast majority were for vague, noncriminal offenses, such as tardiness, talking back to a teacher, or violating dress codes.

For students of color, the crisis is even more extreme: In 2006, about 15 percent of black students were suspended, compared with 7 percent of Hispanic students and 5 percent of white students, according to NCES data. That year, about 0.5 percent of blacks were expelled from school, compared with 0.2 percent of Hispanic students and 0.1 percent of white students. Many of these suspensions are the result of excessively punitive discipline policies. Mirroring tactics used in the adult criminal-justice system and the "war on drugs," many school districts embraced practices that emphasize the long-term exclusion of students who violate school rules. Schools are relying more and more on the police and juvenile courts to address school-based behavior that used to be handled by educators.

In New York City, a recent analysis by the New York Civil Liberties Union revealed that suspensions of 4- to 10-year-olds have increased 76 percent since 2003.

In Colorado, two friends horsing around dented a locker and were charged with felony mischief and third-degree assault, according to the Washington-based Advancement Project.
In Virginia, a plastic pellet spit through a straw led to assault charges and expulsion, The Washington Post reported.

In a zero-tolerance school, that's it.

Sadly, zero-tolerance policies are as ineffective as they are prevalent. Research shows that they fail to improve student behavior. Even worse, these policies deny students access to desperately needed services, while dramatically increasing the likelihood of future involvement with the juvenile-justice system -- especially for students of color.

This is what's known as the " school-to-prison pipeline." The United States now has the world's highest incarceration rate, and the number of juveniles in detention has swelled in recent decades. In the United States, more black men ages 18 to 24 live in prison cells than college dorm rooms, according to U.S. Census data.

Nationwide, some districts are implementing positive preventative approaches to school discipline. The programs vary, but all are based on similar principles:

• Creating respectful and welcoming school environments;

• Teaching positive behavior skills and conflict resolution; and

• Expanding access to academic and counseling services for children and families.

These programs equip students with essential skills, reducing their chances of entering the juvenile-justice system. And they cost less to implement than the cost of incarcerating a child in a juvenile-detention facility. Perhaps most importantly, these programs help all children learn better, not just the ones who may be struggling in school.

 
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