"Zero tolerance" discipline policies that are enforced widely in U.S. schools are backfiring: They may be promoting misbehavior and making students feel more anxious, the American Psychological Association (APA) said Wednesday.
The group called for more flexibility and common sense in applying the policies, reserving zero tolerance for the most serious threats to school safety.
Zero-tolerance policies spread in the 1990s as a tool to fight drug use and violence on campuses. Schools often suspend or expel students for having weapons or drugs, which can include over-the-counter medicine, says educational psychologist Cecil Reynolds of Texas A&M University. Verbal threats, fighting or sexual harassment also can get kids booted, he says. "There are cases such as the kindergarten boy who hugged two classmates. His teacher reported him for sexual harassment, and he was suspended."
"The 'one-size-fits-all' approach isn't working. Bringing aspirin to school is not the same as bringing cocaine. A plastic knife isn't the same as a handgun," Reynolds says. He led an APA panel that summarized research on the topic.
Kids feel less safe and perform worse academically in schools with high suspension or expulsion rates, even taking into account students' income levels, the association's report says. Also, students' higher suspension rates predict higher rates of future misbehavior and school failure compared with classmates who weren't suspended for similar misdeeds, Reynolds says.
There are growing signs that zero-tolerance policies are steering more teens into the juvenile justice system, says Russell Skiba, an Indiana University educational psychologist. "Things that used to be handled by principals land kids in juvenile detention," he says. The report also mentions racial disparities; minorities are expelled more often than whites for comparable offenses.
Principals who want to be flexible "may be caught in a catch-22," says Richard Flanary of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. If school boards set rigid policies, principals who defy them risk losing their jobs. "Then they're bashed in the press for overreacting to kids' misbehavior."
The National School Boards Association has urged local school boards to give administrators more discretion, says Tom Hutton, the group's staff attorney. State and U.S. laws may limit discretion for certain offenses, he adds.
The APA advised using more violence-prevention programs to reduce problems. "But school boards have to deal with community feelings too," Hutton says. "Boards hear complaints about 'more sensitivity training,' and people sometimes ask, 'Why are they doing all this warm, fuzzy stuff?' "