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Monday, November 24, 2014

Zero Tolerance is a Failed Concept

"Zero tolerance" ideology has been a disaster. It has led to jails being filled up with people convicted of minor crimes, while major crimes continue to go unpunished. It also has impacted our education system awfully. I talked about fighting bullying in a previous post "Bullying and What to do about it". But that post only illustrated how much a loser zero tolerance education is. Further support comes from research.

Zero Tolerance Fails

Evidence shows that Zero Tolerance policies in schools have major issues.

[This section quote references a paper by the APA: [ ( "Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations" )]

Question: "Have zero tolerance policies made schools safer and more effective in handling disciplinary issues?"

"In general, data tended to contradict the presumptions made in applying a zero tolerance approach..."

The paper notes that most of Zero Tolerance concepts are based on faulty assumptions.

Faulty Assumption 1. Violence out of control

"School violence is at a serious level and increasing, thus necessitating forceful, no-nonsense strategies for violence prevention."


"the evidence does not support an assumption that violence in schools is out-of-control."

Faulty Assumption 2. Zero Tolerance improves Discipline consistency

"Through the provision of mandated punishment for certain offenses, zero tolerance increases the consistency of school discipline and thereby the clarity of the disciplinary message to students."


"The evidence strongly suggests, however, that zero tolerance has not increased the consistency of school discipline. Rather, rates of suspension and expulsion vary widely across schools and school districts. Moreover, this variation appears to be due as much to characteristics of schools and school personnel as to the behavior or attitudes of students. "

Faulty Assumption 3. Removal of Students will improve learning environment for remaining students.

"Removal of students who violate school rules will create a school climate more conducive to learning for those students who remain."


"data ... have shown the opposite effect, ... schools with higher rates of school suspension and expulsion appear to have less satisfactory ratings of school climate, less satisfactory school governance structures, and to spend a disproportionate amount of time on disciplinary matters."


"research indicates a negative relationship between the use of school suspension and expulsion and school-wide academic achievement..."

Not only are the expulsed impacted negatively, but the reality turns out that the remaining students also receive a poorer education than expected.

Faulty Assumption 4. Swift and certain punishments of zero tolerance is a deterrent

"The swift and certain punishments of zero tolerance have a deterrent effect upon students, thus improving overall student behavior and discipline"


"Rather than reducing the likelihood of disruption however, school suspension in general appears to predict higher future rates of misbehavior and suspension among those students who are suspended. In the long term, school suspension and expulsion are moderately associated with a higher likelihood of school dropout and failure to graduate on time."

It doesn't work as intended.

Faulty Assumption 5: Parents Support Zero Tolerance and Students Feel Safer

"Parents overwhelmingly support the implementation of zero tolerance policies to ensure the safety of schools, and students feel safer knowing that transgressions will be dealt with in no uncertain terms."


"The data regarding this assumption are mixed and inconclusive. Media accounts and some survey results suggest that parents and the community will react strongly in favor of increased disciplinary punishments if they fear that their children’s safety is at stake. "

But on the other hand:

"On the other hand, communities surrounding schools often react highly negatively if they perceive that students’ right to an education is being threatened. Although some students appear to make use of suspension or expulsion as an opportunity to examine their own behavior, the available evidence also suggests that students in general regard school suspension and expulsion as ineffective and unfair"

Question 2: What has been the impact of ZT on students of color and students with disabilities?

Part of the appeal of zero tolerance policies has been that, by removing subjective influences or contextual factors from disciplinary decisions, such policies would be expected to be fairer to students traditionally over-represented in school disciplinary consequences.

Reality about Minorities:

" Rather, the disproportionate discipline of students of color continues to be a concern and may be increasing; over-representation in suspension and expulsion has been found consistently for African American students and less consistently for Latino students. The evidence shows that such disproportionality is not due entirely to economic disadvantage, nor is there any data supporting the assumption that African American students exhibit higher rates of disruption or violence that would warrant higher rates of discipline. Rather, African American students may be disciplined more severely for less serious or more subjective reasons. Emerging professional opinion and qualitative research findings suggest that the disproportionate discipline of students of color may be due to lack of teacher preparation in classroom management or cultural competence."

Reality about children with disabilities:

"students with disabilities, especially those with emotional and behavioral disorders, appear to be suspended and expelled at rates disproportionate to their representation in the population. "

Question 3: To what extent are zero tolerance policies developmentally appropriate as a psychological intervention, taking into account the developmental level of children and youth?


"Children are not developmentally mature enough to respond to Zero Tolerance as ASSUMEd

"Research relevant to juvenile offending has found extensive evidence of developmental immaturity. Particularly before the age of 15, adolescents appear to display psychosocial immaturity in at least four areas:"

  1. poor resistance to peer influence,
  2. attitudes toward and perception of risk,
  3. future orientation,
  4. and impulse control.

Evidence from Neuroscience

"The case for psychosocial immaturity during adolescence is also supported by evidence from developmental neuroscience indicating that the brain structures of adolescents are less well-developed than previously thought. Developmental neuroscientists believe that if a particular structure of the brain is still immature, then the functions that it governs will also show immaturity; that is, adolescents may be expected to take greater risks and reason less adequately about the consequences of their behavior."

Secondary Schools have structural Challenges

"a growing body of developmental research indicates that certain characteristics of secondary schools often are at odds with the developmental challenges of adolescence, which include the need for close peer relationships, autonomy, support from adults other than one’s parents, identity negotiation, and academic self-efficacy."

And those Structural Challenges are Aggravated by Zero Tolerance, not moderated

"Used inappropriately, zero tolerance policies can exacerbate both the normative challenges of early adolescence and the potential mismatch between the adolescent’s developmental stage and the structure of secondary schools."

Zero Tolerance doesn't do justice to the learning ability of young people and their immaturity:

"There is no doubt that many incidents that result in disciplinary infractions at the secondary level are due to poor judgment on the part of the adolescent involved."

If we were dealing with adults "zero tolerance" might be more plausible, but we are dealing with children and:

But if that judgment is the result of developmental or neurological immaturity, and if the resulting behavior does not pose a threat to safety, it is reasonable to weigh the importance of a particular consequence against the long-term negative consequences of zero tolerance policies, especially when such lapses in judgment appear to be developmentally normative."

Instead of punitive, arbitrary enforcement of rules in an extreme manner. it looks like our High Schools ought to be using the Secondary School system as a means of coaching, mentoring and also leverage peer group influence by involving them in their own government and making htat a teaching opportunity. [See my post: Bullying and What to do about it (near end of post) where I talk about setting up courts in the High Schools. Given this reports recommendations that is not a crank idea.] Let the kids run their own justice and make it a teaching opportunity with some justice and forgiveness involved.

Question 4. How has zero tolerance affected the relationship between education and the juvenile justice system?


"There is evidence that the introduction of zero tolerance policies has affected the delicate balance between the educational and juvenile justice systems.

Increased reiance on Security personnel, technology and profiling

Zero tolerance policies appear to have increased the use and reliance in schools on strategies such as security technology, security personnel, and profiling.


"there is as yet virtually no empirical data examining the extent to which such programs result in safer schools or more satisfactory school climate."


Zero tolerance may have also increased the use of profiling, a method of prospectively identifying students who may be at-risk of violence or disruption by comparison to profiles of others who have engaged in such behavior in the past. Studies by the U. S. Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and researchers in the area of threat assessment have consistently found that it is impossible to construct reliable profiles that can be of assistance in promoting school safety. Rather, best-evidence recommendations have consistently focused on the emerging technology of threat assessment, which can assist school personnel in determining the degree to which a given threat or incident constitutes a serious danger to the school"

Profiling has tended to be unprofessional (seems professional but is usually based on assumptions equally fallacious to those listed above) and discriminatory. Those engaging in it aren't always professional (or as professional as they think they are) and thus tend to behave in racist, xenophobic, religoiusly chauvinistic, or in other culturally biased ways. Talking about profiling has come to be seen as synonymous to racism in most quarters outside those wedded to these faulty ideas.

School to Prison Pipeline

Consequently the article notes:

"The increased reliance on more severe consequences in response to student disruption has also resulted in an increase of referrals to the juvenile justice system for infractions that were once handled in school."

This is "termed the school-to-prison pipeline.

"Research indicates that many schools appear to be using the juvenile justice system to a greater extent and, in a relatively large percentage of cases, the school-based infractions for which juvenile justice is called upon are not those that would generally be considered dangerous or threatening."

This has a number of issues;

"questions... about whether or not these referred youths’ constitutional rights have been respected fully."

The authors of course call for more research, but the impact of this is to damage the folks demonized by prison, and also lead to corruption of the system as some judges have been convicted of profiting from that "school to prison" pipeline through kickbacks or investments in privateering Prison Industries.

Question What has been the impact—both negative and positive—of zero tolerance policies on students, families and communities?

They believe that there is negative influence on the mental health of youth subject to Zero Tolerance:

"there are a number of reasons to be concerned that such policies may create, enhance, or accelerate negative mental health outcomes for youth."

Zero Tolerance is not cost effective:

"preliminary estimates suggest that the extensive use of suspension and expulsion and increased reliance on the juvenile justice system for school misbehavior may not be cost effective. To the extent that school infractions lead to increased contact with the juvenile justice system, the cost of treatment appears to escalate dramatically."

Question 6. What are the Alternatives to Zero Tolerance?

The report notes that there are a number of alternatives. And the authors recommend a "three level model of primary prevention"

  1. Primary prevention strategies targeted at all students,
  2. Secondary prevention strategies that are targeted at those students who may be at-risk for violence or disruption, and
  3. Tertiary strategies that target those students who have already engaged in disruptive or violent behavior.

And three levels of intervention:

  1. Bullying prevention (primary)
  2. threat assessment (secondary)
  3. restorative justice (tertiary)

I'll skip the Recommendations (they're at the end of this post). But essentially we need to fix the disciplinary system in our schools. I think this can be done in a way that makes discipline part of the education process. But most important that treats children with respect and understand that their personae and moral stance is not fixed and that they should not be judged in a prejudiced manner.

Study recommendation

"The accumulated evidence points to a clear need for a change in how zero tolerance policies are applied and toward the need for a set of alternative practices. It is time to make the shifts in policy, practice, and research to implement policies that can keep schools safe and preserve the opportunity to learn for all students."

Zero tolerance doesn't work.

Study suggestions

Read the report at:

A. Reforming Zero Tolerance Policies
A.1 Practice
A.1.1 Apply zero tolerance policies with greater flexibility, taking context
and the expertise of teachers and school administrators into account.
A.1.2 Teachers and other professional staff who have regular contact with
students on a personal level should be the first line of communication with
parents and caregivers regarding disciplinary incidents.
A.1.3 Define all infractions, whether major or minor, carefully, and train all
staff in appropriate means of handling each infraction.
A.1.4 Evaluate all school discipline or school violence prevention strategies
to ensure that all disciplinary interventions, programs, or strategies are
truly impacting student behavior and school safety.
A.2. Policy
A. 2. 1 Reserve zero tolerance disciplinary removals for only the most
serious and severe of disruptive behaviors. Zero Tolerance Task Force Report 13
A.2.2 Replace one-size-fits all disciplinary strategies with graduated
systems of discipline, wherein consequences are geared to the seriousness
of the infraction.

A.2.3 Require school police officers who work in schools to have training in
adolescent development.
A.3 Research
A.3.1 Develop more systematic prospective studies on outcomes for
children who are suspended or expelled from school due to zero tolerance
A.3.2 Expand research on the connections between the education and
juvenile justice system and in particular empirically test the support for an
hypothesized school-to-prison pipeline.
A.3.3 Conduct research at the national level on disproportionate minority
exclusion, or the extent to which school districts' use of zero tolerance
disproportionately targets youth of color, particularly African American
A.3.4 Conduct research on disproportionate exclusion by disability status,
specifically investigating the extent to which use of zero tolerance increases
the disproportionate discipline of students with disabilities, and explore the
extent to which differential rates of removal are due to intra-student factors
versus systems factors.
A.3.5. Conduct research to enhance understanding of the potential
differential effects of zero tolerance policies by student gender.
A.3.6 Conduct econometric studies or cost-benefit analyses designed to
explore the relative benefits of school removal for school climate as
compared to the cost to society of removal of disciplined students from
B. Alternatives to Zero Tolerance
B.1 Practice
B.1.1 Implement preventive measures that can improve school climate and
improve the sense of school community and belongingness.
B.1.2 Seek to reconnect alienated youth and re-establish the school bond
for students at-risk of discipline problems or violence. Use threat
assessment procedures to identify the level of risk posed by student words.

B.1.3 Develop a planned continuum of effective alternatives for those
students whose behavior threatens the discipline or safety of the school. Zero Tolerance Task Force Report 14
B.1.4 Improve collaboration and communication between schools, parents,
law enforcement, juvenile justice and mental health professionals to
develop an array of alternatives for challenging youth.
B.2 Policy
B.2.1 Legislative initiatives should clarify that schools are encouraged to
provide an array of disciplinary alternatives prior to school suspension and
expulsion and, to the extent possible, increase resources to schools for
implementing a broader range of alternatives, especially prevention.
B.2.2 Increase training for teachers in classroom behavior management and
culturally-sensitive pedagogy.
B.2.3 Increase training for teachers, administrators and other school
personnel to address sensitivity related to issues of race.
B.2.4 Increase training on issues related to harassment and sexual
harassment for teachers, administrators and other school personnel.
B.3 Research
B.3.1 Conduct systematic efficacy research including quasi-experimental
and randomized designs to compare academic and behavioral outcomes of
programs with and without zero tolerance policies and practices.
B.3.2 Increase attention to research regarding the implementation of
alternatives to zero tolerance. What are the best and most logistically
feasible ways to implement alternative programs in schools?
B.3.3 Conduct outcome research focused on the effects and effectiveness
of various approaches to school discipline, not only for schools, but also for
families and the long-term functioning of children. 

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