The Zero-Tolerance Equation

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For nearly two decades, one of the hottest buzzwords in public education has been “zero-tolerance,” as in: Bring a weapon to school – a tiny pen knife counts – get suspended or expelled; bring drugs to school, even an aspirin – get suspended or expelled; or get dragged into a fight in a school hallway – get suspended.

Now, researchers and school authorities are realizing that even a short-term suspension for a nonviolent crime could be the impetus that leads, years later, to that student dropping out of high school.

Yet, as hundreds of groups across the country are trying to prevent students from dropping out of school, a seemingly equal number continues to back zero-tolerance programs that throw those students out the door.

Just how widespread is the zero-tolerance/suspension practice? A major new study in Texas shows that six out of 10 high school seniors have been suspended, expelled or arrested. It’s the first study to document cumulative infractions; federal statistics on suspensions and expulsions cover only one year at a time.  

Although full details of the Texas study won’t be released until later this month, it seems to complement another out of Baltimore that, for the first time, finds a direct connection between suspensions and dropouts.

Published in February and written by Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Social Organization of Schools, the study shows that Baltimore City school students who had already been suspended for three or more days by the sixth grade were at high risk of not graduating from high school.

The report, which sought to identify various early indicators that a student might drop out, noted that 18.8 percent of students in the class of 2007 were suspended for three days or more by the sixth grade. Of the students who were suspended, less than 30 percent graduated within a year of their expected date.

If the suspended students also had been absent frequently or had failed one or more courses, their graduation rates were even lower.

Suspensions, meant to improve students’ behavior, often hurt more than they help.

Zero-tolerance origins

The concept of “zero tolerance” and automatic suspension or expulsion began as an extension of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which was passed in response to increased violent behavior in schools and required all schools to expel for at least a year any student who brought a gun to school anywhere in the country.

Some state and local authorities broadened their brand of “zero tolerance” to include almost any forbidden behaviors: carrying firearms to schools, or objects that resembled weapons, and adding on illegal drug use and possession and also use and possession of legal drugs, such as some over-the-counter medications.

Penalties associated with zero tolerance vary among school systems, but they are consistently the same for anyone snared defying the policy, be it transfer, suspension or expulsion.

Today, the trend of using suspension as a go-to disciplinary action begins early, sometimes even before kindergarten. During the 2009-10 school year, Maryland schools suspended 75 pre-kindergarteners, 631 kindergarteners, 860 first-graders and 1,175 second-graders.

Priscilla Flores, educator initiatives and performance specialist at the Texas Education Association, doesn’t believe children that young should be kicked out of school.

“[These kids] are 5 and 6 years old,” Flores said. “It’s hard to say that they had intent to cause harm.”

As zero-tolerance programs have been enforced more rigidly – entangling not just classroom troublemakers but also top students and star athletes – some school districts are beginning to question their own intolerance.

The Fairfax County Board of Education, in a suburban Virginia county adjacent to Washington, D.C., that is one of the country’s most affluent, recently voted to relax its automatic school transfer policy that was part of the district’s zero-tolerance program after two youths committed suicide after they were transferred to other schools. The board also voted to allow principals to exercise discretion with students found with their own prescription drugs.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take on zero-tolerance policies per se when it ruled in favor of an Arizona student who was strip-searched after allegations that she possessed an Advil pill in school.

“There isn’t any evidence showing that suspension is effective or that it improves disruptive behavior; there isn’t any evidence showing that suspension is effective or that it improves school safety and climate,” said Jane Sundius, director of the education and youth development program at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore (OSI). “Instead, the evidence shows that suspension fails to change kids’ behavior, especially when used frequently, inequitably and inconsistently,” Sundius wrote in a May 2010 report, “Bullying and the Limits of Suspension.”

Most suspensions have little to do with school safety. They are more likely to involve nonviolent acts such as talking back to a teacher, truancy or other disruptive behavior.

The big divide

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 43 percent of black students in grades six through 12 in 2007 had been suspended. In contrast, 22 percent of Hispanic students and 14 percent of white students had been suspended during the same period. Blacks were also expelled at higher rates – 13 percent, compared with 1 percent of white students.  

In the 2009-10 school year, 41.8 percent of suspensions in Baltimore City schools were for disrespect, insubordination and disruption. Only 7.4 percent of the disciplinary actions were issued for dangerous substances, weapons, arson/fire/explosives and sex offenses, combined.

According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center’s Texas study, which tracked 928,940 students who entered the seventh grade between 2000 and 2003, 58 percent of students had received a suspension or worse by the 12th grade. About 90 percent of those disciplinary actions were taken at the discretion of school administrators.

Neither Maryland nor Texas has a state policy regarding what offenses should lead to suspension. Baltimore City schools do not have any zero-tolerance policies in place. However, many Texas districts have various versions of zero-tolerance policies, Flores said.

Education versus safety

The goal for schools is to create a balance between giving each student a fair chance at success and keeping the school safe, said Ronald Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center in California.

“The school officials have tremendous pressure to keep schools safe and yet continue to provide an education,” he said. “So the real challenge is: How do you find that balance in terms of the student code of conduct?”

Jonathan Brice, executive director of student support and safety in Baltimore City schools, said  his first task when he took the position three years ago was to redesign discipline policies to create “better implementation across schools.” This included revising the code of conduct.

“If a kid cuts class, the previous code allowed the principals the ability to suspend that student. I think that’s the wrong thing to do,” Brice said. “If the child didn’t want to be in school anyway [being suspended] was probably what they wanted, and it’s not helping them.”

Sundius and OSI worked with Brice to overhaul the disciplinary system, a task Sundius described as not always easy.

 “It took a while to get the school district thinking seriously about changing the code of conduct,” because of continuing turnover in the top school positions, she said. Several successive groups of officials had to be educated about the flaws in using suspension as punishment.

“We have a gradual discipline policy – the first two levels don’t allow for out-of-school suspension,” Brice said.

When the Baltimore City code of conduct finally was changed, suspensions dropped from 16,752 in 2006-07 to 9,712 in 2009-10, or 8.4 percent of students, the lowest percentage  since the 1995-96 school year – just after the Gun-Free Schools law was enacted. The graduation rate also jumped, from 42.6 percent in 1996 to a four-year adjusted cohort rate of more than 60 percent for the class of 2010.

Most of that improvement was seen in the African-American male graduation rate. In 2006-07, the city schools had almost equal numbers of African-American male graduates and dropouts. In 2010, the ratio was almost three graduates to one dropout.

The Texas approach

Flores, of the Texas Education Association (TEA), said she has seen major improvements in the suspension rate since the 2007 change in Texas’ disciplinary code, which was meant to address zero-tolerance policies.

Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code mandates the removal of students for infractions such as drug or firearm possession and sexual assault, but provides school administrators the opportunity to use their own discretion as to whether to remove a student who commits a lesser offense. The provision also allows room for a student who is acting in self-defense, shows an apparent lack of intent to harm or has a disability that impairs his or her ability to understand the offense.

“[This provision] has made a difference already. We are really providing the opportunity for school officials to take into consideration whether the student meant to do harm, and what their disciplinary history is,” Flores said. She recalled one case in which  the change made a difference involved a high school student who drove her father’s truck to school, and only when she arrived realized his hunting knives were under the seat. Having knives on school property would have been an automatic suspension under previous rules. But the new policy allowed administrators to take the circumstances into account. 

 “We can see that there was no intent to cause harm. Let’s go ahead and use a little common sense,” Flores said.

She also said that although the six-in-10 suspended seniors numbers in the study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center are high, the data are several years old, and disciplinary action in Texas has declined over the past five or six years. She also noted that it’s hard to compare data from that period to current information because of a change in the way the statistics were calculated earlier.

“I went back and pulled the data from the 2008-09 and 2009-10 years,” Flores said. “Immediately I saw that just one year to the next our student population had grown by over 86,000, but our actual state discipline record was less. We dropped by about 8,000 disciplinary incidents, and suspensions have gone down.”

Although the statistics are dated, Flores believes the study “will provoke awareness in our communities and cause people to take more action and to ask: ‘What is leading our youth toward those trends and what can we do to truly help all of our students?’ ” Flores said. “It is an indication. Data don’t lie. It may not be concrete, but it will provoke that awareness.”

Jan Lindsey, senior director of TEA initiatives, said that for the past four years Texas has been making dropout prevention a priority.

“In 2010, $250 million in state and federal funds went to dropout prevention and college readiness,” she said.

More tolerance

Instead of enforcing zero-tolerance policies and immediately imposing suspensions, transfers or expulsions, Maryland and Texas public schools are trying to implement alternative conflict resolution strategies.

They include in-school detention, Saturday schools, conferences with students and parents, and special conflict-resolution programs such as Playworks, Meet Me Halfway and Community Conferencing.

“We may see an increase in in-school suspensions in the next few years,” Flores said. Rather than “moving the students to alternate education schools, we want to keep the students on the home campus as much as possible.”

Brice, in Baltimore City, took more of a safety approach, emphasizing the importance of recognizing and addressing a conflict situation early and averting a disciplinary problem before it happens.

“When young people are initially having issues and schools can attempt to intervene early, we can prevent that student from getting in additional trouble. We think that if we are able to put these other interventions in place, they will help young people ultimately be more successful,” he said. “All of the work that we as a system have been doing is going a long way in helping kids.”

Community Conferencing is a teacher- and administrator-training program for conflict resolution. The program encourages implementing daily dialogues, led by the teacher, during which students have a chance to talk about any issue or incident that concerns them. This can prevent minor conflicts from escalating, and it teaches students how to talk out their problems.

After an incident has already occurred, another type of dialogue includes students, families, teachers and administrators who decide together how to resolve the problem and prevent it from resurfacing.

William Murphy, principal of Hamilton Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore, has been using Community Conferencing at his school for three years.

“When I was first a principal, we had a lot of fights after school. They wouldn’t happen on the actual campus, they would happen in the neighborhoods, and people were calling me asking me to do something about it,” he said.

“On the one hand, I really felt that it was not my responsibility to intervene, especially when school had been over for hours and I have to pick my own kids up from school. But I knew that if I didn’t, the police would get called and students would get in more trouble.”

Community Conferencing turned out to be the perfect solution for Murphy. Once Community Conferencing techniques are used in a conflict, he said that at his school, none of those old conflicts has resurfaced.  

“I can’t say enough about them [the people who oversee the conferences],” Murphy said. “We’ve had a lot of success. When I first became principal, we were seeing six office referrals a day, now we are down to 0.7 office referrals a day.”

Alternative disciplinary strategies aim to keep as many students in school as possible, while keeping the school itself safe.

“I think we are really addressing those issues. We want our schools to be safe. As a parent, when you send your child to school, you expect that your child is going to come back in one piece,” Flores said.