12 Nov 2012

School Zero Tolerance Pros and Cons

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In our fast paced world, when complex problems arise, rather than stepping back and considering all angles of an issue, quick band aid fixes are proposed that deal with the symptoms of a problem. The underlying roots that are more difficult to resolve and take more time, more effort and more thought are largely ignored. Zero Tolerance policies in schools when dealing with drugs, weapons, smoking, drinking, bullying, among other disruptive behaviors, fall into this category.

School Zero Tolerance Pros and Cons

Proponents of the Zero Tolerance Policy say that disruptive students should be removed, enabling teachers to devote more time to teaching, rather than trying to maintain order in their classrooms. They also state that having clear guidelines and swift, firm consequences for violations helps to deter disruptive behavior and violence, thereby promoting a more conducive environment for learning.

Opponents of the policy state that the “one size fits all” punishment increases school drop outs, treats minor and major infractions the same, are racially and ethnically disproportionate and increase the likelihood of delinquency. They offer many examples of arbitrary, often capricious implementation of this policy, in particular with students with disabilities, which puts them further behind their classmates. The use of both in school and out of school suspensions as punishment, rather than serve as a deterrent, merely ensures that the student is not being educated and is further isolated from social support, as well as positive reinforcement.

My Experiences in the Field

As a patrol deputy, I was frequently called to deal with delinquent teenagers and parents at their wits end. I also spent a year as a part time school resource officer at a high risk, end of the line high school that was basically the last resort for students well on their way to ending up in prison. While there were common themes that appeared to link these cases, invariably I found each teenager had circumstances unique to them that properly dealt with, would increase the likelihood that they would be able to overcome their circumstances to succeed in school.

One of the greatest difficulties that arose was the “one size fits all” zero tolerance policies that did not differentiate between major and minor infractions. A student could be making progress towards turning away from gangs, violence and drugs, only to lose the ground gained by a minor infraction such as calling another student a name. I found that these policies tended to be used to get rid of “problems” so administrators did not have to put effort into dealing with an individual student’s unique circumstances and find creative solutions. Too often, teachers were not supported in their efforts to effectively discipline students in the classroom setting. Instead, the teachers were told just to send discipline problems to the guidance counselors or the Principal’s office.

As a result of this dysfunctional system for students, parents and teachers, students were isolated in failure. Discipline, rather than being utilized to build on success, was arbitrarily punitive and failed to model appropriate coping methods or build student motivation. Parents who were engaged with their child’s lives were often ignored or blamed for misbehavior, rather than guided and supported. Parents that were disengaged left at risk students with no positive adult role models to engage with other than frequently rigid administrative staff.

A More Creative Success Oriented Policy Is Needed

This past weekend, I, along with other instructors, taught a group of Boy Scouts rifle marksmanship fundamentals. The ages ranged from 8 to 15 years old and a few of the boys had been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, along with disrupted home lives. Our approach in this program is safety first and foremost, then building successes and a sense of accomplishment regardless of how well other students performed in comparison. We successfully engaged the boys for 2 full days of mentally and physically challenging activities from 8 am to 4 pm, with only minor issues.

The key to this success was assessing each Scout’s strengths and weaknesses, such as attention span, social ability and motivational style. From that, we tailored our approach to each Scout to fit his personality. Rather than focusing on a wide range of standards and rules, we chose a few important ones and worked to help them stay within safe parameters, rather than wait until a major infraction occurred requiring more stringent discipline.

We also utilized and encouraged leadership skills of one of the Scouts who had recently achieved Eagle Scout status and was looked up to by the other Scouts. Supporting and encouraging the Eagle Scout to model leadership and appropriate behavior enabled us to reduce the harsher corrections by adults when an infraction occurred. This benefitted the leader’s self- esteem and sense of responsibility. The boys were more motivated to improve their behavior and performance through the peer mentorship we supported, than direct intervention by adults. This approach encouraged team work, as well as social bonding and self- motivated improvements in conduct.

Many discipline problems that precipitate the implementation of Zero Tolerance policies directly benefit from modeling problem solving skills, building on successes and appropriate peer mentorship. Sadly, most at risk youth have not been exposed to these skills or the personal affirmation and success that arise out of personal accomplishment and accountability. To be sure, truly violent at risk youth require removal from the classroom, most others will benefit from creative, solution and success oriented policies.

The NASP (National Association of School Psychologists) have an excellent analysis of Zero Tolerance policies here: http://www.nasponline.org/resources/factsheets/zt_fs.aspx

What has your experience been with Zero Tolerance policies? Does how they are implemented make any difference in their effectiveness or lack thereof? I welcome your thoughts on this issue, in particular, when policies have been especially helpful or spectacularly failed.

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