Back to School - Part 1 - Schools and “Zero Tolerance”

Back to School - Part 1 - Schools and “Zero Tolerance”

This week, lots of my friends have been taking their kids back to college, while others are getting their younger children ready to go back to elementary, middle or high school.

At the middle school across the street, there’s been a flurry of activity as teachers ready their classrooms for a new school year. And next Monday, a fresh crop of 11 – 14 year olds will descend on the school grounds with their new backpacks, blank composition books and sharpened pencils. The air will buzz with their adolescent voices, exchanging greetings, stories and jokes, as well as gossip and insults.

And invariably, there will be conflicts as feelings get hurt, rivalries develop or resurface, expectations aren’t met, disappointments pile up, and frustrations mount between students, teachers, staff and administrators. “Discipline issues” will surface and need to be addressed.

The question is: how will school personnel address these situations with students? And what will be the results of their approach?

Over the past two decades, many schools have adopted “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies, in an effort to create a safe school climate, conducive to learning. Zero tolerance policies prescribe standard (and usually severe) consequences for certain rules violations or behaviors deemed unacceptable, regardless of the circumstances, context or individuals involved. “Zero tolerance” sanctions often involve removing the offending student(s) from school, through detention, suspension or expulsion. The underlying philosophy is that severe consequences, if universally applied to every student who violates certain rules, will have a deterrent effect on others who might be tempted to violate those rules. Connected with zero tolerance policies, schools increasingly refer student discipline issues to school-based police officers or the juvenile justice system.

Zero tolerance policies have become widespread in schools across the United States, but do they work? That was the question the American Psychological Association asked a Zero Tolerance Task Force to examine. The Task Force conducted an extensive review of nearly two decades of research on zero tolerance policies. Their findings were published in the December, 2008 issue of American Psychologist.

Here are a few of those findings:
• “zero tolerance policies as implemented have failed to achieve the goals of an effective system of school discipline”
• “Zero tolerance has not been shown to improve school climate or school safety”
• “Zero tolerance policies as applied appear to run counter to our best knowledge of child development” AND
• “By changing the relationship between education and juvenile justice, zero tolerance may shift the locus of discipline from relatively inexpensive actions in the school setting to the highly costly processes of arrest and incarceration. In so doing, zero tolerance policies have created unintended consequences for students, families, and communities.”

These “unintended consequences” are at the root of a disturbing trend that’s often referred to as the “school to prison pipeline.” (more about that in a future post)

The APA report concludes:
“The accumulated evidence points to a clear need for change in how zero tolerance policies are applied and toward the need for a set of alternative practices. These alternatives rely upon a more flexible and commonsense application of school discipline and on a set of prevention practices that have been validated in over 10 years of school violence research. Although further research is necessary to understand how best to implement such alternatives, current evidence clearly suggests that research-based prevention practices hold a great deal more promise than zero tolerance for reaching our shared goals of safe schools and productive learning environments. It is time to make the shifts in policy, practice, and research needed to implement policies that can keep schools safe and preserve the opportunity to learn for all students.” (emphasis mine)

Two of the “research-based prevention practices” the APA Task Force recommends as alternatives to “zero tolerance” are:

  • bullying prevention programs AND
  • restorative justice

In future blog posts, I’ll describe how some Lancaster area schools are implementing restorative justice and bullying prevention programs, as alternatives to “zero tolerance” approaches.


How to Tell if Your Community is Really Doing Restorative Justice (from reclaiming

Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis (from the Southern Poverty Law Center)

LAVORP Keynote Address, Part 3 – When Might We Apply Restorative Justice Principles? (describes restorative practices in schools in City Heights, CA – from

SOURCE: Skiba, R. J. (2008). Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools?: An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations. American Psychologist, 63(9), 852-862. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.63.9.852

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: city life lancaster pa restorative justice

Next: Back to School - Part 2 - Restorative Justice in Schools

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