The December 2008 edition of the American Psychologist takes up this question when their task force on the matter publishes the article, “Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations (pp 852-862).
What did they find?
1. “…despite a 20-year history of implementation, there are surprisingly few data that could directly test the assumptions. Moreover, zero tolerance policies may negatively affect the relationship of education with juvenile justice and appear to conflict to some degree with current best knowledge concerning adolescent development.” (abstract, p. 852)
2. Zero tolerance is based on several assumptions that the authors found wanting
a. school violence is at a crisis level and increasing still. No (is this because of the policies?)
b. Zero tolerance increases consistency of discipline and sends a clear message. Not found in the data.
c. Removal of violent children will create a better climate for those who remain. Data suggests the opposite, schools with higher suspension rates have lower climate ratings.
d. Swift punishment is a deterrent. Not borne out in the data. Opposite may be.
e. Parents are overwhelmingly in favor of the policy. Mixed data here at best, depending on whether your child is a victim or offender.
3. Impact on minority and disabled children? The assumption was the zero tolerance wouldn’t be a respecter of persons. Data suggests disproportionate discipline of students of color not based on poverty or wealth. The suspicion is that teachers may need some help breaking down cultural stereotypes.
There’s a lot more in the article but I’ll stop here. Interestingly, the policy was created to be more fair across the board. The article suggests more wise implementation with more options for psychological care (no surprise there) rather than immediately going to the juvenile justice route. Either way, the problem has to do with wisdom. If you give administration options (akin to Judges discretion with repeat offenders) some will use it well, others not so much. If you make rules, they work well in decisions IF making the decision the same way every time is the goal. But of course, no one really wants that since wisdom dictates different responses. But then underlying prejudices will come back into play. However, it appears the policy doesn’t really address prejudice and stereotype anyway.
Is there a better solution?