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The zero-tolerance debate

By Ron Whitehorne on Jan 31, 2011 02:48 PM

Recently Youth United for Change released a report on zero tolerance that concluded this policy was ineffective in creating safe schools that nurture learning. It also argues that zero tolerance criminalizes youth and disproportionately punishes students of color.

Chris Paslay, a teacher, blogger, and frequent contributor to the Inquirer op-ed page, has been a vocal critic of the report. Writing in the January 28 Inquirer, Paslay suggests that District policies are “quite tolerant” and a choice must be made between making schools “shelters for troubled children”, or “institutions of learning where hardworking children can get an education.”

Significantly, Paslay does not deal with the data the report assembles that paint a picture of a school system that, more than in the past, and more than any other district in the state, relies on police and beefed up school security, out of school suspension, and placements in disciplinary schools to maintain order. He does not deal with the correlation between high rates of suspension and poor academic performance. Nor does he deal with the evidence that discipline in Philadelphia schools is racialized and that African American students are more likely to be harshly punished than their white counterparts for the same behavior.  

To cite just a few of the facts in the report:

  • Philadelphia students are twice as likely as students elsewhere in the state to be arrested for the same behavior. 
  • In 2005-06 police were called in 17 percent of student-on-student assaults.   In 2009 police were called in 42 percent of these cases. The same trend was evident in all categories of incidents.  
  • Philadelphia has 10 times the number of school security personnel per capita than the average for the rest of the state and three times as many as the average for the state’s 19 largest districts.
  • A survey of 25 elementary schools found that police were 58 percent more likely to be called for student-on-student assaults at schools where the population is mostly students of color than in schools with a high proportion of White students. African American students are suspended at two and half times the rate of White students, and expelled at five times the rate of Whites.
  • In 2008-09 there were 43,350 out-of-school suspensions in Philadelphia.   Students are suspended at a rate three times greater than the rest of the state. There has been a dramatic spike in 10-day suspensions, from 40 in 2005-06 to 1,078 two years later. 
  • In 2008-09 there were 417 suspensions of kindergarten students, a 70 percent increase.
  • The largest number of expulsions were of  11 year olds.

In the view of many students interviewed for this report, their schools are hostile and unwelcoming places where they are given little in the way of respect and encouragement.  While the student surveys are not a scientific polling of student opinion, they are, nevertheless, disturbing.

Paslay’s article presents us with a false choice – shelters for troubled children or schools for the hardworking and well behaved. First it’s important to note that the School District's priorities don’t fit the image of coddling the troubled at the expense of the “good” students.

We spend huge amounts on school security - in fact, more than any other District statewide and even those with comparable numbers of serious incidents - while spending much less on expanding social services that could address troubling behavior.

The report notes, “The funds spent on school security are substantially more than what is spent on school nurses/health practitioners, nearly double the expenditures for parent and community support, and over three times as much as the amount spent on school psychologists.”

We do not have two distinct populations: one “troubled”, the other, hard working and well behaved. Instead, there is an enormously diverse population of learners, almost all of whom, given the right circumstances, supports, and constraints, can be productive and successful. The democratic function of public education is to make sure that opportunity is there for all.

Admittedly, this challenge is not  easily met. Present policy, at least as seen from the perspective of many teachers and students as well, manages to be both repressive and permissive at the same time. While the report documents many cases of arbitrary and harsh treatment for relatively minor infractions, many teachers are also frustrated because students frequently face no consequences for behaviors that range from persistent disruption of the classroom to more serious violations, including assault. Paslay is right to argue that this also has consequences that threaten student learning, and in some instances, safety as well.

This seeming contradiction is, in some part, an expression of schizophrenic District policy.  On the one hand administrators are under pressure to follow zero-tolerance mandates, and on the other, they are expected to reduce the number of serious incidents, suspensions etc. But more importantly, many schools are simply overwhelmed, lacking the collective will and understanding as well as the resources to create a school climate that respects students and supports learning.  

The YUC report offers a clear alternative to the present policy spelled out in eight specific recommendations, including the collaboration of parents, students, educators, and elected officials in developing policy. Among other things it calls for implementation of “evidence-based practices, such as restorative justice or restorative practices, in all schools.”

This approach, which emphasizes developing relationships based on mutual trust and respect, has been employed successfully in many schools and communities, and was widely regarded as bringing about improvements at West Philadelphia High. This, along with the other recommended policy changes, provide a road map that can take us to a more effective and equitable discipline policy. 

The author is a charter member of the YUC Board.

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Comments (21)

Submitted by Benjamin Herold on January 31, 2011 6:01 pm


Thanks for the thoughtful post.

I'm not a teacher or administrator, but it seems clear that in many, many schools, we currently have the worst of both worlds - bad policies that are inconsistently enforced.

I'd be curious to hear reaction from both YUC members and readers to the approach being tried by two Renaissance providers (ASPIRA, in Stetson and Scholar Academies, in Douglass) of creating a school-within-a-school disciplinary academy to serve students who are either persistently disruptive or who exhibit egregious behaviors.




Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on January 31, 2011 7:02 pm

I too am interested in learning more about this.  Several friends and former colleagues at Stetson have had  very positive things to say.   Certainly keeping the students at the school with the option to return to their regular classes is preferable to transferring them to disciiplinary schools.   At the sametime I'm mindful of Pedro Noguera's account of a school where a special class was created for disriuptive students and within months school staff was clamoring for another special class.   In other words the conditions that generated the problems didn't change.  

At my old school we tried this approach with some success but couldn't sustain it because of staffing problems.

It seems like at Stetson there is a developiing student centered culture and that is a good context for trying this approach.   I know Renny Lajara is an educator who genuinely cares about his students.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 31, 2011 6:09 pm

Well, being a teacher at one of the schools I can tell you that the new policies have been very effective. The troubled students were moved and separated from the rest of the students. Those troubled students have smaller class size, and they have additional supports to help them. The rest of the students are able to learn and work without the disruptions. Also put into place was a school culture that promotes positive behavior and students are rewarded appropriately. The troubled students are reviewed every marking period and they are able to return to the regular student population if they have shown improvement.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 3, 2011 6:06 am

 I hope you will write more about this and keep us all informed as it goes forward.

Submitted by Brian Cohen (not verified) on January 31, 2011 8:35 pm

I was a teacher at West Philadelphia High School last year and I took the Restorative Justice course over Summer 2010. It really makes me think about the kinds of questions I ask students when bad behavior is present. I am not going to receive a good answer to "why did you do this?" But, if I ask "how did your behavior affect others" then the student normally understands and accepts responsibility for his/her actions.

There is a lot more like that to be done. More positive supports needs to be implemented.

Submitted by Phantom Poster (not verified) on January 31, 2011 10:55 pm

Allowing adults to resolve issues in good faith, while teaching young people responsibility, turn around a school's climate one kid at a time.

Submitted by capski (not verified) on February 1, 2011 12:44 pm

I have seen zero evidence of a zero tolerance policy. Students who assault teachers and each other are walking around my school right now.

Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on February 6, 2011 12:23 pm


Restorative justice should indeed be implemented (and cultures of mutual respect should be established in all schools), but the reality of the stituation is, as I'm sure you've experienced as a former Philadelphia teacher, restorative justice can only go so far. For schools to work, we must keep the focus on instruction. It’s both unfair and irresponsible to expect overwhelmed and understaffed city schools to be mothers, fathers, counselors, behavior therapists, instructors, and the provider of any number of social services.

As for the district's need to rely on police and beefed up school security, out of school suspensions, and placements in disciplinary schools to maintain order, I've addressed this issue in a new post on my blog. Here is a link if you care to read it:

Take care,

Christopher Paslay

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 6, 2011 1:55 pm


I did read your piece.   While we have significant differences we also share some common ground.  I agree we cannot expect schools to do it all, particularly given how under resourced our Philadelphia schools are.   Many changes outside schools need to happen if schools are to be effective.   But we must do the best we can in the mean time.  We can't write off those students who present the greatest challenge. 

I don't think our schools really offer an equal opportunity and part of this inequity is the prevalence of harsh, repressive discipline and at least some schools.  

I'm not a pollyanna who thinks we can dispense with suspensions etc. but I think we can and should do a whole lot more to build a culture  where order flows largely from consent and mutual respect.   I am glad and heartened that we both seem to agree on this point.


Submitted by Jimmy (not verified) on March 15, 2011 9:52 pm

Sounds like this would work great. Too bad I only had eight days in my school before I was reassigned. They say it takes twenty days to teach a good habit. I never got that chance before the Philly School District pulled me out of the school I was in. I had to deal with troubled kids who were rude and threw things at me in the classroom. I had gotten no support from any one in my school or district. Where I thought the district, principal, and teacher were to work together, it did not. I find it funny that the "City of Brotherly Love" can give Mickael Vick a second chance but turn their backs on hard working teachers.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on March 16, 2011 7:55 am

"I find it funny that the "City of Brotherly Love" can give Mickael Vick a second chance but turn their backs on hard working teachers."
WOW ! What a statement. Never saw it that way. Thanks.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on March 16, 2011 7:33 am

"I find it funny that the "City of Brotherly Love" can give Mickael Vick a second chance but turn their backs on hard working teachers."
WOW ! What a statement. Never saw it that way. Thanks.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on March 16, 2011 7:07 am

"I find it funny that the "City of Brotherly Love" can give Mickael Vick a second chance but turn their backs on hard working teachers."
WOW ! What a statement. Never saw it that way. Thanks.

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