In the 1980s and 1990s, schools all over America adopted the zero tolerance policy. It was installed with the original intention to lower drug- and gang-related violence and adapted to the general school populations. Research has shown, over time, that the zero tolerance policy is ineffective in improving school social climates, students delinquent behavior or improving overall learning environments.
The U.S. Department of Education warns that a student’s removal from school does not improve “school climate or behavior,” and also recognizes that suspensions resulting from the policy brings about negative outcomes, including lower academic performance, increased drop-out rates, more frequent failure to graduate on time and an increase in disciplinary exclusion. Noting all of these negative outcomes, schools in Utah continue to use a zero tolerance approach.
The catch in this comes when the policy is used inappropriately and schools flip the tables, using the policy against victims of bullying. How does this occur, you may ask? When children are bullied, verbally or physically, and defend themselves from assaults on school property, they are often held to the zero tolerance standard. A policy of “one size fits all” is now applied.
School administrators often employ negative consequences intended for punishing delinquent behavior against the victims who were defending themselves against physical assaults or reacting in a protective manner. In the greater part of law, fighting back may be considered self-defense. Yet victims of bullying receive consequences despite any reason or logic.
A broad swath of negative reinforcements are applied, such as withholding social time (recess, lunches with peers, etc.), suspensions and expulsions. If the policy is used indiscriminately, the victims often experience a continuation of negative outcomes and are essentially re-victimized. Such policies also leave helping adults and parents with little power to help these children.
There is no doubt that schools have a duty to ensure safety and positive learning environments. Yet the zero tolerance approach is antiquated, misused and ineffective. The alternative to a zero tolerance policy would be a restorative focus and an effort to lower the risks of disruption. Suggestions to align school policies with a developmentally appropriate approach, while also showing regard to victims, should be a tiered intervention:
• Primary prevention: Including all students, with clear expectations and social education. Training of educators and administrators. Promoting positive peer climate training and leadership (bully programs, policy education, anonymous reporting outlets, etc.)
• Secondary prevention: Identifying at-risk students. Assessments and tracking of problem behaviors. Progress monitoring. A team-based approach of counselors, teachers and social workers.
• Tertiary strategies: Implemented to students who have engaged in violence or disruptive behavior. A continuation in progress monitoring on an individual basis based on a team approach.
When this process is implemented, all of the sudden the victim may be in a different strategic tier than the aggressor. Then, and only then, can the appropriate interventions be applied.
Programs for schools that promote positive behavioral and academic outcomes while supporting a tiered intervention have been identified with evidence-based outcomes. Those successful programs include positive behavioral supports and safe and responsive school programs. Zero tolerance policies should only be used as the last line of defense and in the most egregious circumstances, while goals for successful programs should support a positive school environment, child developmental insights and team oversight. The tiered programs prevent the “re-victimization” that child victims so often experience within the zero tolerance policy.
Andrea Moore is a certified social worker in private practice. She has a B.S. degree in Family and Human Development from Utah State University and master of social work from the University of Southern California. She has volunteered in many public school community settings in the Salt Lake Valley and is an active voice for children and families.