Zero Tolerance Research Paper

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The issues of school safety, discipline, and order have been an overriding concern for educators and citizens in America since the late 1800s. In 1908, Arthur Perry, the principal of School #85 in Brooklyn, New York, made this observation:

“Discipline” in a school is a natural, to-be-expected, and ever-present problem. The discipline of a school may, and should, under ordinary conditions, improve from year to year; but as the work of the school means continuous process of admitting to the school register hundreds of pupils in their infancy and discharging them in their youth, just so will the problem of discipline be a continuous one. (Perry, 1908, p. 243)

Modern times see a continuation of public and educator concerns for safe and orderly learning environments (Rogers & Freiberg, 1994). Since the late 1960s, public opinion polls have been conducted by the Gallup Organization and reported by Phi Delta Kappan. These polls show that in 1971 discipline ranked third in leading school concerns. In 1982, a lack of discipline ranked first in public concerns. In 1992, it ranked third behind school finance and drugs, and for 1994 and 1998, “lack of discipline” in schools was joined by “fighting/violence/gangs” as the number one concern of the public (Elam, Rose, & Gallup, 1994). The Gallup Poll trend, as measured by public attitudes and concerns about public schools, continues to the present time, with student behavior and the lack of student discipline ranking first or second in the poll as the “biggest problem that public schools face” and there seems to be little hope that these concerns will change soon.

The National Institute of Education’s [NIE] (1978) report to Congress, “Violent Schools—Safe Schools: The Safe School Study Report to Congress,” reported that public fears concerning lack of discipline and violence in schools are well founded. In the Freiberg, Stein, and Parker (1995) study of a middle school located just beyond the city limits, 388 of 1,283 students—nearly one-third of the total school—were referred to the office for discipline in 1 month (October). Total frequency of discipline referrals for both one-time and repeated actions totaled 894 referrals for the same month. Some school environments foster an ethos of inappropriate behavior, which over time may escalate, leading to a highly unsafe teaching and learning environment. Additionally, little learning can take place in an environment in which students are removed from the classroom while their peers wait for order to be restored (Freiberg & Lapointe, 2006; Opuni, 1998, 2006; Opuni & Ochoa, 2002). Student behaviors that disrupt the learning environment have a rippling effect, influencing the disruptive individual, his or her classmates, the school, and subsequently near and far communities. Classroom disruptions steal valuable teaching and learning time (Freiberg, 1999; Freiberg & Lapointe, 2006; Opuni & Ochoa, 2002). School climate and student achievement are casualties of these disruptions, resulting in time off task, conflicts, and ineffective instructional management. A pattern of disruptions also engulfs school administration in noninstructional activities with hundreds or even thousands of hours spent in responding to disciplinary referrals to the office.

Sustained student misbehavior often inhibits instructional approaches that foster interactive teaching methods (Brophy, 1999; Cohen, 1986/1994). Teachers are reluctant to use manipulative tools in math for fear that they will become missiles rather than learning tools (Freiberg, Connell, & Lorentz, 2001). Disruptive behaviors may be symptomatic of other classroom, school, and societal problems that influence teachers and students. Brantlinger (1993) found family income levels of students resulted in differential treatment by teachers and administrators when students from higher- and lower-income families broke classroom and school rules. Moreover, Kounin (1970) demonstrated the relationship between teacher’s management and instructional actions and student behaviors. Classroom management policies were also found to interfere with school reform initiatives. McCaslin and Good (1992) determined that educational reform efforts are stifled by “classroom management policies that encourage, if not demand, simple obedience” (p. 4). Wang, Haertel, and Walberg (1993) further highlight the implications of classroom management in the broader picture of school reform and student learning. Their meta-analysis of learning factors identified classroom management as being first in a list of five alterable variables that influence school learning. Discipline policies and practices have a significant influence on the learning outcomes of students. Weade and Evertson (1988) and Evertson and Weade (1989) found similar connections between classroom management and student achievement. A recent study of 14 elementary schools reported similar results (Freiberg, Huzinec, & Borders, 2007).

Defining Zero Tolerance

Zero tolerance is a theory grounded in policy, emerging from criminal law theory (Reyes, 2006). It attempts to eliminate discretionary decision making by individual formal authority figures, including school principals. The individual in authority is compelled to enforce the predetermined punishment without regard to circumstances. Theoretically, zero tolerance emerged as a policy tool used in criminal law and the military. During the Reagan Administration in the 1980s it was adopted by the federal government in the war against drugs (Reyes, 2006). While military drug experts saw reduced drug usage, the military did not declare a victory for zero tolerance or its ability to deter drugs in the military (Crawley, 2002). The use of zero tolerance policies does not indicate that sexual harassment, discrimination, domestic violence, and drug problems in the military will be eliminated, only that they may be decreased (Reyes, 2006).

In a study by the National Center for Education Statistics [NCES] (1998) zero tolerance was defined as “a school or district policy that mandates predetermined consequences or punishments for specific offenses” (p. 33). NCES (1998) reported that 94% of the sample school districts surveyed used zero tolerance policies for serious student offenses, including violence, firearms, weapons other than firearms, and the use of alcohol and tobacco. Nationally 80% of schools use zero tolerance policies (Reyes, 2006).

Zero Tolerance in school Policies

Although zero tolerance policies were not declared a complete victory in the U.S. military, they became the model policies for K-12 public education (Reyes, 2006). High-profile school shootings and youth drug use in schools became the impetus for zero tolerance school discipline policies. In 1974, a small-town honor student opened fire in his high school, killing three and wounding nine in a well-planned attack (Reyes, 2006). Several other cases were sensationally reported throughout the nation. Many of the student killings have occurred in rural or suburban communities. In 1999, the shooting in Columbine, Colorado, only increased and justified the use of zero tolerance policies in school discipline (Vossekuil, Fein, & Reddy, 2002).

Although school shootings have occurred regularly in inner-city schools, the movement of violence to the “safety” of suburban and rural schools stunned the nation. National politicians responded to school shootings with zero tolerance school policies for guns, knives, and other weapons. The Gun-Free Schools Act (PL 103-227) was enacted in 1994 and mandated that schools expel students for a minimum of 1 year for bringing a gun to school. The federal law was tied to federal funding for public schools through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. The ESEA required that federal funding be withheld from school districts that did not enforce the Gun-Free Schools Act. School district policies were contingent on state legislative policies. While the federal law provides a provision to modify expulsion based on extraordinary or mitigating circumstances, states adopted more prescriptive policies that could lead to expulsions (Reyes, 2006). Although the original intent of the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act remains a priority for all American schools, some have criticized the expansion of zero tolerance policies to all school infractions as an elaborate legal ploy to exclude less desirable students (Reyes, 2001).

School shootings set the context for zero tolerance policies, but the overall need for safe school learning environments framed the context (Reyes, 2006). Evidence from the aftermath of Columbine and successful campus crime prevention efforts show that school climate and good relationships with students are the best crime prevention tools (Vossekuil et al., 2002). The Columbine catastrophe was the impetus for a report by the U.S. Secret Service entitled The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of Social Attacks in the United States (Vossekuil et al., 2002). The authors examined 37 incidents of targeted school violence that spanned from 1974 to 2000, involving 41 attackers, and they concluded that other students within the school knew about the pending assault (Vossekuil et al., 2002). In 81% of the attacks, the attacker informed at least one other person that he was thinking about or planning a school attack. In 59% of attacks, more than one person had information about the attack before it took place. These individuals could have prevented the tragedy, but did not report it to authorities. The report further indicates that many of the shooters felt bullied, persecuted, threatened, attacked, or injured by others in school (71%), often being the daily target of others. The video interviews conducted by the Secret Service of the shooters, now in prison, show this level of helplessness and the lack of alternatives. Shooters turned to killing others to end their pain. Vossekuil et al. explain that 93% of shooters planned the school attack in advance, with 61% of attackers listing “revenge” as a motive. The findings of the study and examples like Twenty-Nine Palms, California; Fort Collins, Colorado; and Elmira, New York, suggest that crime prevention comes in investments in adult-to-student communication and relationships using resource personnel, counselors, staff development, and student management (Reyes, 2006; Vossekuil et al., 2002).

Zero Tolerance: The Texas Example

Like many other states, Texas created the Safe Schools Act to comply with a federal mandate. In 1995, the 74th Texas Legislature enacted the Safe Schools Act, Chapter 37, Law and Order of the Texas Education Code. The new discipline code included a section on the student code of conduct; a section on guns, knives, and other weapons; and a section on drugs. The Texas Safe Schools Act did not use the phrase zero tolerance, but it did emulate many of the zero tolerance policy requirements, including: (1) a non-discretional enforcement policy, (2) the highly prescriptive, non-negotiable requirements of zero tolerance policy, and (3) the official removal of all of those in authority, including teachers and administrators, from the student discipline decision-making process. The school’s responsibility for discipline became one of complying and enforcing the state law. The policy mandated that school districts’ boards of trustees “shall . . . adopt a student code of conduct” (§37.001). The law used the language of “shall (be removed)” for required student removal from the regular classroom and the language of “may (be removed)” when the law specifies administrator flexibility (Reyes, 2006).

Throughout the United States, the role of school administrators is crucial to the administration of zero tolerance policies. The principal or other appropriate administrator, usually an assistant principal, must be responsible for all student removals from the regular instructional class. This does not mean that the administrator has discretion on what to do; it merely means that the administrator provides the official sanction. The Texas policy for student behavior provides five options for mandatory and discretionary removals out of the regular classroom. The options include: 1) removal to a disciplinary alternative education programs (DAEP), 2) expulsions, 3) out-of-school suspension, 4) in-school suspension, and for urban areas, 5) the Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program [JJAEP]. (Reyes, 2006)

Officially, the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act provided the impetus for mandatory student expulsions and suspensions. It conditioned federal aid to the schools upon the state’s adoption of policies to remove students who bring weapons to school (Reyes, 2006). The federal policy required that students be removed from school for 1 year. It also mandated that state policy report these students to law enforcement authorities.

Effect of Zero Tolerance

In practice, the policy of Subchapter G, Safe Schools, Chapter 37, Discipline: Law and Order disproportionately affected urban, African American, Hispanic, low-income, at-risk, and male student populations (Reyes, 2006). The 2000-01 Texas Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS) summary data for the state discipline program shows that of the 1,675,746 discipline actions recorded, approximately 95% were for “discretionary reasons” (Reyes, 2006, p. 15). While the intent of the federal policy was to remove guns, drugs, knives, and other weapons, the Texas policy resulted in only 5% of all removals for the intended mandatory removal reasons. A total of 798,666 students were removed from the regular instruction classroom at an average of 2.1 times per student. Zero tolerance policies served to criminalize the behavior of 20% of the state public school enrollment, targeting a disproportionate number of minority students (Reyes, 2006, p. 15).

African American and Hispanic students are removed from the regular classroom at rates that are disproportionately higher than their representation in the state enrollment data. In 2000-01, African Americans made up 14.4%, or 586,712, of the Texas K-12 enrollment (approximately 51% of these were male); however, they represented 22% of the Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP), 19% of the expulsions, 32% of the more severe out-of-school suspensions, 23% of the less severe in-school suspensions, and 26% of the Texas Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program (JJAEP; Reyes, 2006, p. 17). In each removal category, 70% to 80% of the removals were African American males (Reyes, 2007). Latinos in 2000-01 made up 40%, or 1,650,560, of the K-12 enrollment in Texas (approximately 51% were male); however, they made up 47% of the expulsions, 43% of the out-of-school suspensions, and 45% of the JJAEP (Reyes, 2006). In each category, Latino males made up 70% to 80% of the removals (Reyes, 2006). An analysis of more current data for 2003-04 shows similar results. For example, in 2003-04 African Americans made up 14.2%, or 616,050, of the state K-12 enrollment (approximately 51% were male); however, they represented 23% of the DAEP, 24% of the expulsions, 34% of the more severe out-of-school suspensions, 24% of the less severe in-school suspensions, and 26% of the JJAEP, with African American males representing approximately 70% to 80% of the removals (Reyes, 2006, 2007).

Violence prevention in schools is a national, rather than a geographic-specific, concern. The U.S. government’s national Centers for Disease Control (CDC; 2006) in Atlanta, known for its work in stopping health-related epidemics, sees school violence as a national epidemic issue.

The Perceived Need for Expanded Zero Tolerance Policies

Public concern regarding lack of school discipline helped set the conditions for expanding the use of zero tolerance policies to include lesser disciplinary infractions. While the emotions of murder in the schoolhouse, often repeated by the print and visual media, flamed the growing push for newer, tougher, zero tolerance school policies in state houses across the United States, the national school violence data does not seem to support the rush to implement new school violence policies. The former U.S. Surgeon General, David Satcher, stated that the 2000s have seen a substantial decline in overall violence by youth (Satcher, 2001). Additionally, the CDC’s National Youth Risk Behavior Survey reports that school violence has significantly decreased overall from the 1990s (CDC, 2006).

But when we disaggregate the data spanning from 1993 to 2005, we see a mixed picture. The CDC’s National Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey, given in 1993 and again in 2005, indicates declines in a few areas with regard to school violence but increases in others (CDC, 2006). The greatest declines are seen in male students’ responses to “carried a weapon into a school at least once in past 30 days.” In 1993, 17.2% of male students answered affirmatively to this question, and in 2005, only 10.2% did. This may be due in part to the increased use of metal detectors in some secondary schools during the 1990s and the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 (discussed above, put into practice after the 1993 survey), mandating a 1-year expulsion for bringing firearms to school. Robert Skiba, the director of the Center for Evaluation and Educational Policy at the University of Indiana, in an education policy brief entitled “Zero Tolerance: The Assumptions and the Facts,” (2004) concluded that the zero tolerance mandates from the Gun-Free Schools Act were the primary cause in the reduction of guns brought to school, but these mandates had little effect in other areas of school violence. The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (2006) shows that survey respondents felt there were fewer guns brought into school in 2005 than in 1993. But there was an increase in affirmative student responses to ” were threatened or injured with a weapon ” (Q1) and “missed school due to safety concerns ” (Q3) from 1993 to 2005. Additionally, female students indicated in three of the five surveyed violence indicators (Q1, Q3, and Q5) that there were increases in school violence, as viewed by female students. Different age groups of students also present different profiles. Using the same CDC data (2006), it becomes apparent that ninth graders are, in general, the most prone to violence in school, even during overall declining periods of national school violence; they have higher percentages of violent behavior than tenth, eleventh, or twelfth graders.

Despite student safety concerns, schools continue to be safer places than either homes or communities (Kaufman et al., 1998) even though the overall threshold of youth violence remains very high. Schools are reflections of the larger society. The United States has the greatest proportion of prison inmates per 100,000 people and one of the highest gun murder rates in the world (3.42 per 100,000 people). England, however, has the lowest gun murder rate in the world (0.04 per 100,000 people)—100 times lower than the United States—according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey for 2004 (Graduate Institute of Inter-national Studies, 2004).

Making Examples of Some to Deter Others

According to the zero tolerance theory, the goal of a zero tolerance policy is not to rehabilitate an individual, but to deter future infractions by others; consequently, zero tolerance discipline policies may negatively affect the educational potential of those students punished by zero tolerance. Educational consequences of zero tolerance include: (1) being absent from school, (2) falling behind academically, (3) having failing grades, (4) losing contact with one’s teacher, (5) losing contact with peers, (6) dropping out of school, and (7) moving down the school-to-prison pipeline (Civil Rights Project, 2000; Reyes, 2006).

The Texas law criminalizes student behavior. Several sections of the law have criminal consequences, including Class A, Class B, Class C, and Class D infractions. Table 16.1 provides a picture of how school policies criminalize often minor infractions. Carrying weapons to school or injuring a peer are very serious violations, but under the Texas law, lesser infractions such as returning to school after dismissal, parking violations, and making noise in class can carry equally severe consequences and affect a youngster for life. The law requires that students be charged, be entered into a national criminal database, pay for court costs, be sentenced, and complete their sentences. Some judges have complained that students are still juveniles, who have the right to expunge their criminal records, yet many low-income students and their families do not have the level of sophistication or the resources to return to the same jurisdiction to expunge their records (Reyes, 2006).

Zero Tolerance research paper t1Table 16.1       Texas Education Code Criminal Activities for Student Behavior

Avoiding the Jailhouse Connection

According to a study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project, school suspensions and expulsions lead to educational opportunities lost including dropping out of school, but more discouragingly, these exclusions create the school-to-prison pipeline (Civil Rights Project, 2000). According to the study, students who drop out of school and students who are suspended are more likely to also go to prison; students who are suspended are 30% more likely to enter the school-to-prison pipeline (Civil Rights Project, 2000). Gottfredson, Gottfredson, and Hybl (1993) also report that students who misbehave in school are at a higher risk of dropping out of school, abusing substances, and engaging in other delinquent behaviors. Later in life, they have greater problems adjusting to marital and occupational transitions. Texas Appleseed (2007), in collaboration with Advocacy, Inc. and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, produced a brief that reported statewide statistics on the school-to-prison pipeline. Using 2006 data, they found students who are sent to Discipline Alternative Education Placement (DAEP) centers due to inappropri-ate school behavior have five times the dropout rate of mainstream placements. The report also found that students who drop out are more likely to enter the juvenile justice system and then prison, with 80% of Texas prison inmates being school dropouts (Texas Appleseed, 2007). A pattern of disruptions weighs upon school administrators with thousands of hours spent in responding to disciplinary referrals sent to the office. Unfortunately, most parents are unaware of the potential for their sons or daughters to become part of the criminal justice system as a result of their behavior in classrooms, schools, or school surroundings.

Alternative Approaches to Zero Tolerance

The applications of zero tolerance behavior policies are not consistent across schools or districts, which results in inconsistent consequences for similar infractions. This seems to have a greater negative effect on minority students and those from impoverished economic backgrounds. The Secret Service report (Vossekuil et al., 2002) and subsequent comprehensive studies (Freiberg & Lapointe, 2006) find that hostile peers, uncaring adults, bullied students, and the lack of one person to provide hope for developing adolescents are a formula for further disasters. The killing of students by students is the extreme exception; however, many students dread coming to school, as the answers to the 2005 CDC survey questions “were threatened or injured with a weapon” and “missed school due to safety concerns” indicate. Both items saw a significant increase in affirmative responses from 1993 to 2005 for male and female respondents. To avoid these negative perceptions, a community’s focus on prevention, caring, cooperation, organization, and community can be the key to deterring school violence (Freiberg, 1999). Perhaps acts of violence, dread for school, and threats to student safety may be lessened through caring school communities and nurturing families that work together to promote prosocial behavior and school effectiveness.

Educate Families About Violence

Parents are the first teachers. Recruiting parents’ participation in violence prevention must reflect changes in the family, including working parents, caregivers, or single-family homes. Rather than one program or activity that engages parents, multiple approaches are needed that build upon parental interests such as miniworkshops that address individual and family needs, including “How to help your child succeed in school,” “Managing a very tight budget,” or “Where to find free holiday and weekend family activities.” Additionally, parents’ skills and education will help to deter their child’s participation in media-derived violence. Letting parents know that viewing violence on television is potentially harmful to their child, and may cause violent behavior, should be a first step in violence prevention.

The level of simulated murders and other severe acts of violence in the media are taking their toll. The average elementary-aged child has seen 8,000 murders on television (Straton, 1995), and the growing dominance of video games causes a child or adolescent to be a direct participant in violence. A longitudinal study (Huesmann, Moise-Titus, Podolski, & Eron, 2003) of the effects of violent media on boys and girls showed that a high amount of childhood television-violence viewing correlates significantly with adult aggression 15 years into adulthood. Children that watched the most violent television programs were more likely to demonstrate violent behaviors as adults, including spousal abuse and criminal offenses (Huesmann, Moise-Titus, Podolski, & Eron, 2003). With this knowledge, parents can make better informed decisions while raising their child. Parent involvement and education are a critical component in deterring school violence.

Begin With the Classroom

The centralized and mandated efforts of zero tolerance policies have shown they vary greatly from school to school and district to district. Improving school safety begins in the classroom. Much of the discussion about safe schools has looked at creating a protective barrier around the school. Yet the interconnectedness between classroom management, instruction, and learning within school has been a missing factor in discussions about safe, caring, and healthy learning environments. The press for self-motivated, active, and independent learners who need to flourish in a technological age is incongruent with learning under rigid school and classroom management practices that emphasize obedience, compliance, and limited participation. This incongruence creates its own levels of pressure and interpersonal conflict between teachers and learners. Changes in curriculum and instruction need to be aligned to instructional management approaches. Alterable variables, such as classroom management, that are classroom based need to be considered in the effort to reform and transform schools. Building systems that are peripheral to improving classroom interaction patterns will seriously limit improvement efforts.

Build school Connectedness

McNeely, Nonnemaker, and Blum (2002) report, “When adolescents feel cared for by people at their school and feel like a part of their school, they are less likely to use substances, engage in violence, or initiate sexual activity at an early age” (p. 138). School social development programs need to foster this feeling of caring and connectedness. Students who feel connected to school in this way also report higher levels of emotional well-being (Resnick et al., 1997). Resnick et al. identified school connectedness as the only school-related variable that was protective for every health risk outcome among adolescents. Programs that promote school connectedness should be sought out and implemented to diminish school violence. McNeely et al. (2002) report, “A classroom management program [Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline, Freiberg, 1999] that increased school connectedness and promoted self-discipline found that after one year, 30%-100% fewer students were sent to the principal’s office for acting out in class, fighting, or assault” (p. 138).

Alterable variables that are classroom-based require more extensive teacher training, both at the teacher preparation level and at the district professional development level. Comprehensive schoolwide discipline, management, and climate programs will reduce the levels and instances of inappropriate student behavior (Freiberg & Lapointe, 2006), resulting in fewer school dropouts (White-Cornelius, 2007). Students who enter the current discipline and juvenile justice systems as a result of minor nonviolent behaviors pay a very high social, emotional, and academic price for their actions that can carry forward for a lifetime.

Refocus Teacher Preparation

The last 20 years have seen a dramatic change in teacher education curriculum and the time it takes to prepare and certify a teacher for the classroom. In the past, certification was a 2-year process and was the exclusive domain of teacher colleges and universities. Now, by taking a narrow curriculum and passing a written exit examination, almost any person may achieve certification through any one of multiple paths from private for-profit companies to school districts and regional centers in just a year or less. One for-profit company will certify a teacher in 1 year by taking mostly Internet, and some face-to-face, classes during the evenings and weekends for as little as $4,000. In the past, knowledge about child and adolescent development, classroom management, learning environments, and content methods were a significant part of a quality teaching preparation.

Under the current system there is little time for learning how to create a safe, caring, and productive learning environment, despite the research that shows such environments have improved both mathematics and reading achievement (Freiberg et al., 2007; White-Cornelius, 2007). With a growing teaching force that is less prepared to draw upon an extensive repertoire of professional knowledge, there is greater reliance on a one-size-fits-all discipline approach. Rigid rules and absolutism have replaced pedagogical common sense based on extensive knowledge of children and youth. It has become evident that teachers for the new millennium need a broader approach, one that enables them to facilitate a continuum of teaching and management approaches.

Teachers need a comprehensive methodology to create classroom and school management systems that reflect greater independence and self-discipline in student learning and behavior. Preparing current and future teachers with the philosophical and pedagogical knowledge and skills needed to prevent minor student infractions from escalating is an important starting point in building student connectedness. When we rely on absolutism and rigid rules, without a comprehensive management approach, too often students become tourists in the classroom rather than active citizens in the teaching and learning process (Freiberg, 1996).

Provide Just-In-time Professional Development

Efforts to sustain success and reduce violence in schools may require extended support, including staff development beyond what most school districts have provided in the past. Just-in-time staff development synchronizes professional development with teachers’ need for knowledge and skills when they need it the most. Staff development in classroom management and student discipline, which is usually presented in August before school begins, should be moved to the time of the year (February, March, and April) when teachers have a high need for new management approaches, enabling teachers the time to assimilate and plan for the effective implementation of new ideas and programs for the fall. Before school workshops would then be refresher sessions that build on previous faculty development activities. Obtaining feedback from others about your teaching is another important key to successful professional development implementation, but obtaining feedback about oneself, with time to reflect, elevates the significance.

Feedback on teaching requires data, and it’s this data that can help build a context for the issues and decisions teachers and administrators face daily. Research-driven school profiles, that use a range of data and instruments, should be part of each school’s decision-making process. The findings should be for internal use, allowing schools to improve from within. Teams of people from a cross-section of the community should be involved with the school staff to support them in improving teaching and learning, based on the internal findings. Data regarding student discipline referrals, in-school and out-of-school suspensions, and alternative approaches to discipline and management should be a regular part of administrator and faculty or staff meetings. Providing professional development that is built around school data, when teachers and administrators have the opportunity to actually use it, will enhance the teaching and learning environment and provide a proactive and preventive model for educators.


Student behavior continues to be a growing concern for those involved in the education of youth, as well as the broader public. The persistently high levels of violence and the need for safe and caring places to learn is becoming a greater challenge for teachers in all geographic locations. Zero tolerance district policies should focus on their original intent—to eliminate guns and other weapons in schools. We must reduce or eliminate the criminalization of other, far less serious student misbehaviors. The drift away from the original policy has created a third tier of schooling (the second tier being special education) through alternative programs like DEAP, which have shown little long-term success and may become a pipeline to dropping out and later to prison. In order to make the transition from a zero-tolerance-for-everything policy to a rational policy that will keep our children and youth safe, we need to (1) work with families and caregivers to reduce the exposure of children to media violence; (2) build school connectedness to reduce bullying and student isolation and to bring students from being tourists in their schools to becoming citizens; (3) focus on the classroom as the place where change will occur first; (4) use school discipline and climate data to inform teaching and learning practice; (5) refocus on the original intent of zero tolerance policies to keep guns and other weapons out of school; and (6) expand prevention programs that complement the development of student self-discipline within a caring and supportive learning environment. To begin this process, we must:

  • provide a teacher preparation curriculum, regardless of the source, that emphasizes the core elements of teaching and learning that quick certification programs may have missed;
  • encourage school districts to offer thematic professional development that enables all adults in the school to work as a team to improve the lives of the children and youth of our nation;
  • build regional data centers or work with local colleges and universities that will assist small- to medium-sized school districts in collection, interpretation, and dissemination of discipline and climate data for use by educators and parents in districts and schools;
  • create school- and district-level task forces that will semiannually review the results and effect of the zero tolerance and other school district discipline policies and report the findings with recommendations for changes and improvements;
  • create statewide review groups to distribute information on the best discipline management programs and systems found nationally and internationally.

There are several issues raised by zero tolerance policies that extend beyond just student behavior and on the learning environment, the family, and the media. Promoting school connectedness, refocusing on teacher preparation and how adults and youth see each other will provide a paradigm shift toward the future. The 21st-century learner needs flexibility, independence, and self-discipline; however, we are anchored to an 18th-century discipline paradigm that we must change.


The authors wish to thank Ms. Stacey Lamb, a doctoral student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Houston and previously a fifth-grade teacher in the Spring Branch Independent School District in Houston, Texas, for her research assistance and feedback on this research-paper.


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