Study: Zero Tolerance Policies May Have Negative Health Implications for Students

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A new report based on research of three California school districts suggests that school children exposed to so called, “zero tolerance” policies may be taking a toll on their mental health and wellbeing.

The report,  funded by the California Endowment and coordinated by Human Impact Partners (HIP), Community Asset Development Re-Defining Education (CADRE) andRestorative Justice Partners (RJP), examined three student populations in Los Angeles, Oakland and Salinas, California. It found that youth enrolled in middle and high schools that practiced zero tolerance policies were much likelier to have higher stress levels than students attending schools using alternate disciplinary models, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) and restorative justice (RJ) programs.

lockersResearchers believe that stress levels are major components regarding students’ mental health and that elevated stress levels may even lead to shorter life expectancies for the populations studied.

Additionally, the researchers state that students enrolled in schools using PBIS or RJ disciplinary models were, on average, more likely to have higher grades, test scores and overall attendance rates than students enrolled in schools using zero tolerance, also called exclusionary disciplinary programs. The report also says that students enrolled in schools with zero tolerance programs have higher dropout rates, participate in fewer extracurricular activities and are referred to special education programs more frequently than students attending schools with alternative disciplinary polices in place.

The report states that a majority of schools in the United States use “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies, which frequently result in severe punishment – such as expulsion or arrest – for infractions involving weapons, drugs, threats and in some instances, insubordination or cursing.

The two primary alternate disciplinary policies studied by researchers – PBIS and RJ models – incorporate the teaching of social skills into class curriculums, with greater emphasis on reinforcing positive student behavior. Restorative justice programs, in particular, involve students directly in school improvement initiatives, with teachers and administrators, to alter disruptive behaviors.

The study, funded by The California Endowment, says that had local school district 7 of the Los Angeles Unified School District increased the use of School-Wide Positive Behavioral Supports (SWPBS) policies by just 50 percent in the 2009-2010 school year, about one-third of its school suspensions could have been prevented, saving the district about 31 days of teaching time and around 93 days of administrative time in the process.

Additionally, had the 36 middle and high schools with publicly available suspension data from the California Department of Education increased their implementation of PBIS policies by half during the 2009-2010 school year, researchers predicted that more than 1,500 out of school suspensions would have been prevented, with 65 days of teaching time and almost 200 full days of administrative time saved as a result.

Photo: flickr, Stevendepolo