Parents strive to address behavior problems fairly, doling out similar punishments to each child for similar transgressions. This fairness in punishment helps parents avoid the idea that they punish a favorite less severely than a truculent child or a child with chronic behavior problems. This idea of fairness may help to explain why parents have accepted zero tolerance policies for better than 25 years.
In theory, zero tolerance policies espouse a tough, but fair, approach to student misbehavior. Students bringing weapons or drugs to school, as well as those creating serious disturbances in the classroom, face automatic suspensions, expulsions and even the involvement of the justice system. The justification for zero tolerance policies is that they create a safer learning environment. Faced with news of school violence and ongoing drug problems, zero tolerance arguments appeal to any parent’s basic impulse to protect their children.
Yet, the facts about zero tolerance policies do not bear out the claims made by zero tolerance advocates. In December, 2013, the Vera Institute of Justice released a policy brief, “A Generation Later: What We’ve Learned about Zero Tolerance in Schools,” that analyzes research and data from a range of sources, including the Department of Education; the Department of Justice; the American Psychological Association; academic journal articles; as well as research and policy centers. Their findings undermine the claims that zero tolerance policies provide fairness or increase school safety.
Under zero tolerance policies, minority students — black and Latino boys, in particular — are far more likely to face harsh punishment. Special needs students, who typically require more patience and understanding, are expelled at three times the rate of students without special needs. A particularly disturbing finding, some schools use suspension and expulsion as the catch-all punishment for every violation of rules, such as insubordination.
No Connection to Safety
The rates of youth violence have declined in the last two decades, but the brief notes that no research has ever connected that decline with zero tolerance policies. Nor have zero tolerance policies had a significant impact on whether students bring a weapon to school. What the research does show is that suspensions and expulsions increase the likelihood of subsequent criminal behavior, lower academic performance and drop-out rates.
Parents may have bought into zero tolerance policies on the grounds that such policies promised tough, but fair punishments and safer classrooms, but the evidence does not support those claims. In a perverse twist, parents that wanted to protect their children with zero tolerance policies now find their children at greater risk because of those very policies.