Dr. Latanya Fanion, Public School Program Advisor in the Federal Programs Unit at the Arkansas Department of Education
Conversations surrounding the safety of students in public schools have been significantly influenced by haunting accounts of school shootings, countless recordings of students engaged in violent brawls, and repeated reports of students caught with drugs and weapons on school grounds. As these incidents became seemingly more widespread, a sense of fear developed in communities across the country. Consequently, the national discussion on safe and drug-free schools was reignited. Parents, community members, educators, and students called on school leaders and policymakers to do something to protect the nation’s schools from the perils of society that were robbing young people of their innocence. To regain the public’s trust and restore security in our nation’s schools, policymakers responded by passing various pieces of legislation, and school leaders subsequently adopted zero tolerance policies to safeguard schools and students from drugs, weapons, and crimes of violence in schools.
Zero tolerance policies gave educational leaders the authority to remove students from school by expelling, suspending, or sending troubled students and those with chronic misbehavior to alternative schools. The policies required school leaders to assign students predetermined consequences for rule infractions, regardless of the circumstances. This left little room for school leaders to practice discretion or adjust consequences based on a student’s history or intentions.
Zero-Tolerance Policies Disproportionately Affect Minorities
Civil rights advocates alleged that African American, Hispanic, and students with disabilities were disproportionately suspended, expelled, and sent to alternative schools. Parents complained that their children were suspended, expelled, and sent to juvenile justice centers for offenses that were often non-violent, unsubstantiated, and first-time offenses. School officials argued their hands were tied because of the “one size fits all” mandate. Additionally, after a thorough analysis of zero tolerance policies, numerous educational researchers found the policies were not making students more compliant, schools safer or more academically sound. Educational researchers claimed the strict zero tolerance policies were fueling the school-to-prison pipeline by criminalizing student misconduct and allowing law officials to discipline students for infractions once handled in the principal’s office. Most disturbingly, study after study revealed a direct correlation between zero tolerance policies and the nation’s dropout crisis. As suspension and expulsion rates increased, so did the nation’s dropout rates.
High Suspension and Expulsion Rates Linked to Low Academic Achievement
Studies also uncovered that schools with higher suspension and expulsion rates were more likely to have: low academic achievement and parental involvement; less qualified teachers; poor teacher-student relationships; an unwelcoming school climate and culture; high absenteeism; limited resources; and repeat offenders—all variables consistently associated with a student’s decision to abandon high school prematurely. The consequences of the harsh zero tolerance practices cause students to develop an irreparable distrust of adults in the school, experience a sense of alienation and disengagement, and ultimately students fall behind academically. Once these negative feelings start to spiral, researchers affirm dropping out is usually the next choice students make.
A Better Solution
Student advocates claim that zero tolerance policies should not push students out of school into a life of uncertainty. Further, they call for policymakers to overhaul the policy and encourage schools to use more proactive measures to change undesired student behavior.
When schools focus on beneficial interventions, such as, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Social Emotional Learning (SEL), schools experience a significant reduction in discipline infractions, and they are less likely to use punitive disciplinary measures to control student behavior. Additionally, schools increase safety, attendance rates, parent involvement, enhance academic outcomes, and increase learning time for students by keeping them in school. Most importantly, these schools greatly reduce their dropout rates, which benefits all stakeholders. Our students do not deserve to be shortchanged by policies that remove them from the very institution that is supposed to level the playing field.
Dr. Latanya L. Fanion, a former special education teacher and administrator, is a Public School Program Advisor in the Federal Programs Unit at the Arkansas Department of Education. She was a 2012 Southern Education Leadership Initiative intern with the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. Through her research she seeks to work with policymakers and educational leaders to tackle the high school dropout crisis by reclaiming high school dropouts, addressing “push-out” factors, and developing policies that call for more innovation in adult education program models.