Schools Must Abandon Zero-Tolerance Discipline

Education Week

By Kavitha Mediratta

In 2007, the high school graduation rate in Baltimore, a city where the school system serves 85,000 mostly African-American and low-income students, was an abysmal 34 percent. Then Andrés A. Alonso, the chief executive for the city’s schools, took action. He revised the code of discipline to prevent suspensions for less serious offenses and instituted targeted counseling, after-school programs, and academic interventions to help students succeed.

Four years later, the dropout rate had been reduced by more than half. Eighty-seven percent of Baltimore students who began high school the year the reforms were implemented had either graduated or were completing their studies.

Baltimore’s success story, and others like it in California and Colorado, offer concrete evidence of effective alternatives to zero-tolerance discipline policies, which hurt students’ ability to learn and thrive and too often push them out of school. By helping principals and teachers address the underlying causes of misconduct—and giving them options other than suspension and expulsion—forward-thinking school districts across the nation are demonstrating how positive discipline can improve educational outcomes.

But more school systems need to follow the lead of these innovative districts and move away from an overreliance on suspensions and expulsions. “The School Discipline Consensus Report,” published last month by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, can help districts do just that. It provides a catalog of effective strategies and recommendations for reforming school disciplinary practices nationwide.

The report, which draws on research and interviews of more than 700 experts in education, justice, health, and the behavioral sciences, presents a host of strategies to help schools and districts create positive climates for teaching and learning. These include improving educators’ skills for managing student behavior in the classroom, using school safety measures that support collaborative problem-solving, and strengthening educational services for students placed in alternative education and juvenile-justice settings so that they can transition successfully back to school.

The report is a response to a problem that has derailed educational opportunities for far too many young people in the United States. Each year, millions of students are removed from their classrooms, frequently for minor infractions. A common misconception is that zero-tolerance discipline is necessary to prevent violence in schools. However, federal and state data show these policies have led to suspensions and expulsions for even the most minor misbehaviors, such as talking back to a teacher or not complying with the dress code.

Rather than improving safety in schools, harsh zero-tolerance discipline has far-reaching negative consequences—dramatically increasing the risk of failure, dropping out, and involvement with the justice system. Even worse, these types of severe punishments disproportionately fall on children of color, particularly African-American students, who are three times more likely than white students to be suspended, even for similar types of misbehavior.

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