The Effectiveness of Zero-Tolerance Policies in Schools

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Problem, Hypothesis, and Research Methodology

Schools have become dangerous places, and quite often the greatest danger to students is from their fellow students. Recognizing this unfortunate fact of life, many schools, at all levels up to and including university, have instituted “zero-tolerance” policies regarding certain types of behavior. These have included, but are certainly not limited to, bullying, fighting, sexual harassment or simply inappropriate sexual behavior, wearing gang paraphernalia, bearing or displaying any kind of weapon or anything that looks like one, and possessing any kind of controlled substance (including prescription medication). The student identified as engaging in the transgressive behavior is almost always sent home for the day and often suspended. “Zero-tolerance” refers to the stated policy that no violation of school policy regarding such behavior shall be tolerated. The purpose of this paper is to examine the possibility that such draconian and inflexible policies actually do more harm than good, in that they impose undue burdens on school staff, create unwarranted stress for students, and fail to increase school safety in any meaningful way.

The popular media have been filled with stories of six-year-old children being sent home because they were caught carrying a gun made out of chocolate or called a girl “cute” in, apparently, the wrong tone of voice. Certainly, this smacks of paranoia, not to mention stupidity. Yet, such evidence of abuse, or, if you like, overzealous application of school policies is, for all its copious volume, merely anecdotal. Also, it is unlikely that there will ever be a sensationalistic report in the tabloids about how a given school’s zero-tolerance policy is working. Thus, accurately measuring the true efficacy of zero-tolerance policies in even a single school, let alone schools in a wider area, is problematic. While statistics on all sorts of crimes, at down to and including the elementary-school level, are readily accessible, bullying, fighting, and carrying weapons (or “weapons”) are not recorded as crimes. Thus, there is no valid before-and-after comparison to be made from crime statistics.

Additionally, school administrators, if polled or interviewed, are unlikely to be completely realistic about the efficacy of their schools’ zero-tolerance policies. Teachers, if interviewed in strictest confidence, maybe reasonably frank and critical of the policy, but there is no real incentive for them to be so and a significant downside if they voice their objections and word leaks out. Therefore, any polling or interviewing mechanism that would be part of a research study on the topic would have to use methods that absolutely guaranteed the anonymity of respondents and closely safeguarded the data collected.

This paper will, therefore, outline a two-step process: first, the existing literature shall be examined to see if any consensus exists on the good or harm done by zero-tolerance policies. If there is no clear agreement one way or the other, then a proposal for a research study will be presented. Such a study would involve presenting a questionnaire to school administrators and staff in a school or schools wherein zero-tolerance policies have been in force for a significant period of time. While, as noted above, the responses to such a questionnaire may often be less than objective, there are various ways to control for that variable. It is acknowledged going in that such a research study will be more likely to gather qualitative than quantitative data, and the questions asked will be constructed with that realization.

Review of the Existing Literature

In reviewing the literature on this topic, several problems present themselves. The primary issue is that zero-tolerance policies are fairly new in schools nationwide and thus, there is a paucity of data. Therefore, a search was done not just on the results of zero-tolerance but also on the policy in theory. It is very difficult to evaluate whether school administrators nationwide have adopted such policies as a result of a scholarly review or simply as a “this seems like it would be a good idea” quick-and-dirty decision (the latter is suspected since anything that ostensibly increased student safety would likely have been seen as an intrinsic good). Nonetheless, that zero-tolerance policies have such a significant effect on daily school life argues for a rigorous, scientific examination of their effectiveness or lack thereof.

The ingoing assumption, naturally, by the administrators in a school wherein zero-tolerance policies have been implemented is that they are a good thing, in that safety is an intrinsic good. Yet, as Reynolds et al. noted (2008), there is a problem both with the paucity of data and the direction in which what data does exist point: “An extensive review of the literature found that, despite a 20-year history of implementation, there are surprisingly few data that could directly test the assumptions of a zero-tolerance approach to school discipline, and the data that are available tend to contradict those assumptions” (852). Reynolds underscored the lack of data more than that data’s significance, and the stated problem is clear: either lack of data collection or lack of collectible data.

The issue of punishing offenses against zero-tolerance also arises. It should be considered an inherent negative to inflict punishment on a student, and therefore an unhappy necessity at best. After all, sending a student home or suspending him negates the entire purpose of the school as far as that student is concerned. Skiba and Peterson (1999) considered this question and noted that “Over time, however, increasingly broad interpretations of zero tolerance have resulted in a near epidemic of suspensions and expulsions for seemingly trivial events” (3). The authors go on to report several incidents of zero-tolerance enforcement, such as a nine-year-old being suspended for one day for bringing to school a manicure kit with a one-inch knife, or a seventeen-year-old shooting a paper clip with a rubber band at a fellow student, missing, and hitting a cafeteria worker, then being expelled from school, taken to jail, and charged with misdemeanor battery. While these incidents can be considered isolated in the overall scheme of things, one cannot help but note the absurdity of overzealous punishment, no doubt caused by the very implication of the term, “zero tolerance,” i.e., that no discretion is allowed in punishing these “offenses.”

Skiba and Peterson further examined the zero-tolerance issue in a study released in the following year. The authors (2000) noted that “Despite a dramatic increase in the use of zero tolerance procedures and policies, there is little evidence demonstrating that these procedures have increased school safety or improved student behavior” (Skiba & Peterson 335). The authors (2000) further observed that the primary factor in reducing school violence was in teaching students the social skills necessary to keep conflicts from getting out of hand and escalating into violence: “Ultimately, the effectiveness of any disciplinary system may be judged by the extent to which it teaches students to solve interpersonal and intrapersonal problems without resorting to disruption or violence” (Skiba & Peterson 335). So by this reckoning, when zero tolerance is implemented, school policies have already failed—thus suggesting that those policies have little net effectiveness.

A large part of the overall objections raised to zero-tolerance policies is the often drastic and disproportionate nature of the punishments meted out for offenses. Quite frequently, the student disciplined has no idea that a given conduct or possession of a given object violates school rules. Significantly, often the student should have no reasonable expectation that he or she is violating said rules. Casella (2003) noted that in order for zero tolerance to work properly, the focus should be on repairing any harm done rather than on retribution against the student, offering “…suggestions for violence prevention based on a model of restorative justice” (872). Thus, the proper attitude should be “no harm, no foul.” It does seem absurd to mete out the same punishment to one student carrying a nail file in her purse and to another who shoves a classmate into a concrete wall.

Zero tolerance is not evenly applied or enforced. The greatest impetus for implementing zero tolerance policies existed in those schools where violence was a demonstrated problem. However, such policies have been implemented with the most frequency in urban and minority schools, with the unstated assumption that such student bodies are more prone to violence. In 2002, Verdugo noted that “In urban schools…zero-tolerance policy sanctions are more likely to be applied to ethnic/racial minority and poor students” (50). While this observation is based on conditions that existed a decade ago, it is safe to conclude that nothing has changed in that regard, except perhaps that zero tolerance is being more rigorously enforced than ever in such schools. Therefore, the question must be asked if these policies are in place in such schools because of a real or of a perceived threat of violence.

In measuring good (prevention and punishment) against harm (negative effects of punishment), the nature of enforcement and punishment must be examined. Suspensions and expulsions, as noted above, directly contradict the reason for the existence of schools in the first place: to provide children with the opportunity to learn. Martinez (2009) took a particularly jaundiced view of this: “The literature suggests that zero-tolerance has flaws and school districts and administrators have misused it. When implemented, it typically equates to exclusion through suspension and expulsion: two disciplinary actions that have well-documented side effects” (153). Certainly in the case of a particular student, and quite likely for the school in general as well, the cure is worse than the disease. Yet, the very nature of the term “zero-tolerance” suggests that no consideration of circumstances or mitigation of punishment should be allowed.

Some researchers have attempted to quantify zero tolerance’s effectiveness by interviewing school administrators. In one such study, Dunbar and Villarruel (2002) interviewed school principals in Michigan and found that “The disparate interpretation of the zero-tolerance policy among school leaders and its implementation negatively affects the educational experience of urban students” (82). This is an intuitively sensible conclusion. When students are treated with suspicion, stopped at checkpoints, and searched, the school experience starts to feel more like the prison experience. The assumption that a given student population is so prone to violence that it must be treated with suspicion and drastic punishments for violations is inherently demeaning and, as the authors note, can be racially valenced.

The appropriateness of instituting a police-state environment in what is supposed to be an institution of learning and a place for young people to develop educationally and socially comes into question. Gregory and Cornell (2009) observed that the role of school administration was to teach, not to punish; they “…contend that zero tolerance discipline policies are inconsistent with adolescent developmental needs for authoritative, as distinguished from authoritarian, discipline” (106). The authors note the parallel between the two styles of parenting (i.e., authoritative and authoritarian) and those two styles of discipline policies. The goal should be to teach the student the why of the existing rules rather than emphasizing discipline and punishment. This does not mean that discipline should be lax, only that it should be fair and impartial.

The preceding literature review seems to present a unanimously negative opinion of zero-tolerance policies in schools. A further review of the literature by this writer presented a roughly 10:1 ratio of critical vs. approving reviews of the policy. Nevertheless, it is this writer’s opinion that a research project based on stakeholder interviews and/or surveys would be helpful. Aside from their resounding negative opinions of zero tolerance, one recurrent theme in the studies reviewed was the relative lack of data extant. Part of this problem had to do with the paucity of formal studies; part of it had to do with the difficulties in measuring the efficacy of a policy the benefits of which are primarily measured by what has not happened. The question therefore is: do schools that institute zero-tolerance policies experience a drop in violence as a result, and significantly, is the drop observed, if any, significant enough to compensate for the disruptions and negative consequences of strict discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions?

Research Proposal Outline

The following is a brief outline of a questionnaire-based research proposal. The idea is to rely on the reportage of school administrators and educational staff regarding the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies in their schools. While no one person may be relied on to be perfectly objective in this regard, it is hoped that sufficient sample size will “smooth out” such effects. One factor helping the data-gathering process is that school staff should be eager to share their opinions on this critical issue. As previously noted, only a reliable assurance of the strictest confidentiality will make the collected data valid.

One classic method of quantifying qualitative responsive data is to elicit answers from participants using a Likert-type scale. In such questions, respondents are asked to rate their agreement or disagreement with a given statement based on a scale such as 1=strongly disagree, 2=somewhat disagree, 3=mildly disagree, 4=no opinion, etc. The seven-point scale is often used because it provides enough latitude for respondents as well as enough variation in data points, without becoming cumbersome in the process. Therefore, it is proposed that the following questions be asked of a cohort of school administrators and teaching staff:

Based on the following scale (7-point Likert scale inserted here), state your agreement or disagreement with the following statements, that at your school:

Zero-tolerance policies have been effective in reducing violence.

Zero-tolerance policies’ enforcement has caused significant disruption.

Zero-tolerance policies are clearly spelled out and applied without bias.

Students and parents are satisfied with zero-tolerance policies.

There is an additional data set that should be collected, and that is the length of tenure of administrators and staff at the school. The reason for collecting this data would be to construct a proxy variable. The willingness of a given staff member to be forthcoming and, if necessary, critical would be essential in evaluating responses; yet, this cannot be directly measured, so the assumption would be made that the longer a staff member’s tenure, the more secure he/she would feel in offering criticism. The proxy variable would, therefore, be useful in measuring the reliability of responses.

The population that should be surveyed should be as large as possible. The question is how homogenous the schools surveyed should be: should they all be of a given socioeconomic class, all urban, all suburban, all in a given geographic locale, etc.? This is a question that, when answered in whatever form, imposes a limitation on such studies: that the results may not be generalizable to the population as a whole. It would certainly be valuable to conduct a nationwide survey similar to that one proposed; however, such a survey would certainly be beyond the capabilities of this author, as would processing all the gathered data.

It would be necessary to control for the various biases that already exist in such an emotionally-charged issue. No doubt, many educators and administrators feel that zero tolerance imposes a huge and largely unnecessary burden on them; others must feel that such policies are the only thing that keeps their schools from deteriorating into the Wild West. The proxy variable mentioned above would help to weight the responses in favor of those who had the greatest stake in the issue (i.e., those who had worked at the school the longest), but other variables should be recorded to account for predisposition towards one side of the issue or the other; for instance, whether the respondent feels that enforcement of the rules is racially selective. (Again, a proxy variable may be necessary.)

It seems from a preliminary evaluation that zero-tolerance policies do, in fact, cause more harm than good, validating this author’s initial hypothesis. Yet, the problem of lack of data remains and must be addressed. This author feels that there is a need for more qualitative and quantitative research on the subject. The stakes are high, as the harm caused by these policies is clear and well-documented and can therefore only be justified if such policies prevent even greater harm. The problem of school violence is manifest, but the question is still very much open as to whether zero-tolerance policies are the best way to address it.

The problem as this author sees it is that zero-tolerance seems so superficially appealing. The horrific incidents of school violence, including mass shootings, in recent years, have prompted a huge outcry from the public for school administrators to do something. Zero tolerance is indeed effective, but it is overzealously applied. The results are costly. Students are deprived of an education, often for trivial offenses, and a paranoid, unhealthy atmosphere of distrust and suspicion is created in the name of security. The rationale for creating that atmosphere is understandable, but its effects should be critically measured and evaluated.

Works Cited

Casella, Ronnie. "Zero tolerance policy in schools: Rationale, consequences, and alternatives." The Teachers College Record 105.5 (2003): 872-892.

Dunbar Jr, Christopher, and Francisco A. Villarruel. "Urban school leaders and the implementation of zero-tolerance policies: An examination of its implications." Peabody Journal of Education 77.1 (2002): 82-104.

Gregory, Anne, and Dewey Cornell. "Tolerating” adolescent needs: Moving beyond zero tolerance policies in high school." Theory Into Practice 48.2 (2009): 106-113.

Martinez, Stephanie. "A system gone berserk: How are zero-tolerance policies really affecting schools?" Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth 53.3 (2009): 153-158.

Reynolds, Cecil R., et al. "Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools?: An evidentiary review and recommendations." The American Psychologist 63.9 (2008): 852-862.

Skiba, Russ, and Reece Peterson. "The dark side of zero tolerance: Can punishment lead to safe schools?" Phi Delta Kappan 80 (1999): 372-376. Retrieved from Web.

Skiba, Russell J., and Reece L. Peterson. "School discipline at a crossroads: From zero tolerance to early response." Exceptional Children 66.3 (2000): 335-396.

Verdugo, Richard R. "Race-ethnicity, social class, and zero-tolerance policies: The cultural and structural wars." Education and Urban Society 35.1 (2002): 50-75.