Administration Calls For Schools To Limit Use Of Zero Tolerance Policies, Police Officers For Routine Student Discipline
from the still-a-long-way-to-go dept
The damage done by zero tolerance policies has been covered here several times. Recently, we noted more schools were dropping these policies in favor of something more nuanced and leaving fewer routine disciplinary problems in the hands of on-campus police officers. The positive effects of these actions were immediately noticeable. Broward County, Florida schools witnessed a 41% drop in arrests in a 66% drop in suspensions after their zero tolerance policies were abandoned.
Now, the administration itself is addressing the damage done by these policies. The US Department of Education has issued guidelines aimed at rolling back zero tolerance policies, which have made it even harder for at-risk students to have a shot at receiving an education.
The secretary of education, Arne Duncan, and the attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., released a 35-page document that outlined approaches — including counseling for students, coaching for teachers and disciplinary officers, and sessions to teach social and emotional skills — that could reduce the time students spend out of school as punishment.
“The widespread use of suspensions and expulsions has tremendous costs,” Mr. Duncan wrote in a letter to school officials. “Students who are suspended or expelled from school may be unsupervised during daytime hours and cannot benefit from great teaching, positive peer interactions and adult mentorship offered in class and in school.”
The documents note that nearly 25% students with disabilities have been suspended, despite making up only 12% of school attendees. In addition, the DOE’s research found that black students were being suspended three times as often as white students. The documents also point to the troubling rise of routine infractions being handed over to police officers, which has resulted in a steady stream of kids spending time in court, rather than in school.
A statement by Attorney General Eric Holder addressed this last issue specifically.
“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” Mr. Holder said in a statement.
(A nice thought from Eric Holder, but perhaps he could consider extending that leniency to non-violent drug offenders, kids saying stupid stuff who get rung up on “terroristic threat” charges and others similarly trapped in an overbearing justice system.)
The DOJ and Dept. of Education have been pushing for changes along these lines since 2009, but this is first time the two have issued such direct guidance urging an overhaul of bad disciplinary policies. Unfortunately, plenty of resistance is expected from schools whose policies are deeply entrenched. (Not that this is completely their fault — the government tied school funding to zero tolerance weapons policies years ago, which greatly encouraged the spread of “zero tolerance” to other, less potentially dangerous actions.)
“Resistance can make implementing alternatives a difficult course to chart for school leaders,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, which represents district superintendents. “Meanwhile, funds to improve school climate and train school personnel in alternative school discipline can be scarce in today’s economic climate.”
Further complicating this return to common sense are other roadblocks erected by the DOE itself.
Professor [James] Forman Jr. [clinical professor at Yale Law School] added that because school accountability systems focus on student test scores and other academic measures, rather than on reducing suspensions, schools might not have much incentive to keep troubled students in class.
This is a step back on a path towards true accountability in school discipline, something some administrators are in no hurry to implement. The agency’s guidance removes the safety net of handing the decision-making over to broad policies and law enforcement officers in order to claim any overreaction is “out of their hands.”
There’s no easy fix here, even with the agency’s suggestions. On paper, students who are truly problematic don’t appear much different than students who occasionally do stupid things. Subtleties will continue to be overlooked as policies are adjusted, occasionally taking out the good with the bad. But this is an important step to take. It’s been obvious for years that making discipline decisions using the binary of zero tolerance (and turning it over to police officers as swiftly as possible) has done little to make schools better or safer. Instead, it has resulted in hundreds of cases of inappropriate punishments and kids with court records rather than diplomas.