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Winter 2009 Vol. 17. No. 3 Focus on School Climate

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Zero tolerance: Is it moving the District toward safer schools?

An ineffective approach, it is unfair in its impact on students

By by David Lapp on Dec 1, 2009 01:01 PM

Teachers cannot teach and students cannot learn if they don’t feel safe. The question is, “What’s the best way to achieve the goals of safe schools and increased opportunities to learn?”

While proven strategies exist, some used by the School District of Philadelphia, zero-tolerance policies, like the one adopted last year, will not accomplish these goals.

In its 2006 review of exclusionary and zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, the American Psychological Association found no evidence that the use of suspension, expulsion, or zero-tolerance policies resulted in improvements in student behavior or increases in school safety. Research also shows that such practices have negative effects on student academic performance and drive up dropout rates, resulting in enormous long-term social costs.

Here’s what zero tolerance in the District meant during 2008-2009:

  • Teachers and administrators who actually knew the students lost their powers of discretion;

  • Relatively minor offenses were often lumped together with very serious infractions;

  • Mitigating circumstances were frequently ignored;

  • Students recommended for expulsion were improperly removed from their regular schools and transferred into disciplinary schools months before any hearing to determine if they were actually guilty;

  • Many students were eventually exonerated, but only after months of unjust educational disruption.

Though the District improved parts of the process this year, problems remain. Students are still sent to disciplinary schools before their formal hearing. They still wait too long for expulsion hearings and for an SRC decision. Dozens of students are waiting for the SRC to vote on expulsions for alleged infractions dating as far back as March.

The District’s flawed approach has severe consequences for many students. My office represented students who missed almost a half-year of instruction before the SRC finally determined that they merely witnessed fights. Countless students, never seriously considered dangerous, were arrested and hauled away from school in handcuffs. Their criminal cases were quickly dismissed, months before their school discipline cases were resolved. Recommendations by teachers and principals that students be allowed to return to regular schools are frequently ignored. The District has the legal authority to prescribe lesser punishments when appropriate, but zero tolerance makes this unlikely.

An 11th grade boy, who unwittingly left a two-inch pair of scissors in his backpack, will never go back to his magnet school, where he was passionate about digital media production. When his hearing officer asked him what zero tolerance meant to him, he responded, “Zero tolerance means that if you break the rule, you get punished, even if you didn’t know you were doing it, and even if it’s not fair.”

These practices are particularly troubling because of their disparate impact: 67 percent of students in disciplinary schools are boys; African American students, 64 percent of the student body, make up 82 percent of the transfers to discipline schools; and students with disabilities are transferred at a rate roughly twice that of their peers.

Both the federal Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools and the Pennsylvania Department of Education recognize that the most effective way to reduce violence and disruptive behavior is through improving school climate. Non-punitive, evidence-based approaches to discipline have demonstrated remarkable success at reducing disciplinary referrals, raising achievement, and improving safety and staff morale. Urban school districts, such as Denver, Los Angeles, and Baltimore, have adopted reforms that focus on keeping students in school while maintaining the option to exclude students who pose real safety threats. Florida and Texas have enacted laws to limit zero tolerance. Meanwhile, zero tolerance in Philadelphia created large numbers of expulsions and transfers to disciplinary schools but did little to improve school climate.

In Imagine 2014 the District embraced Positive Behavior Supports, a promising and highly structured approach to creating an atmosphere of respect in schools. Hopefully after an increase in the dropout rate last year, the District will prioritize improving school climate and implement this plan along with other new initiatives such as in-school suspension, peer mediation, and the restorative practices model used at West Philadelphia High School.

There are extreme cases of misbehavior where removing students from school is necessary. But it’s wise to focus on those strategies that actually create safe schools and opportunities to learn for the vast majority of students.

About the Author

David Lapp is an attorney at the Education Law Center and a former teacher. He is a parent of a 1st grader in the District.

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