Zero Tolerance for Bad School Policies

What do you do with bad kids? First of all, don’t call them bad kids! Kids are learners who make mistakes and need help and guidance along the way, right? So what are we doing about Zero Tolerance policies that throw a disproportionate number of minority students into criminal status? We should craft new school policies that support student transgressions through better guidance, more support and much more attention to their access to quality learning opportunities. An old “rule of thumb” of teaching is that if the learning is interesting, there are less behavior problems. A new rule of thumb for teaching is to make the learning more equitable.

K-16 schools are tasked with educating students and drawing out their learning. A get tough policy, commonly referred to as a “Zero-tolerance” policy gets a lot of attention because educators assume that Hammurabi’s “threat of punishment” will deter all crime. And it does have some affect on students. But another outcome of this policy is to label all student transgressions as outrageous and start labeling them as criminals. But the New York Times reports on Broward County’s new approach to student behavior:

Rather than push children out of school, districts like Broward are now doing the opposite: choosing to keep lawbreaking students in school, away from trouble on the streets, and offering them counseling and other assistance aimed at changing behavior (New York Times, “Seeing the Toll, Schools Revise Zero Tolerance, December 2, 2013).

To add to a bad policy, in fact one that is tragic, is that this left-over drug policy disproportionately affects minority students. I think when we make these kinds of rules for our society, we imagine the outcome as applying to everyone. But this has not happened for this policy and the inequity it creates in our schools and for our communities is outrageous.

Nationwide, more than 70 percent of students involved in arrests or referrals to court are black or Hispanic, according to federal data (NYT, December 2, 2013).

In the end we need policies in schools that promote a zero-tolerance for non-equity rules rather than rules that target one type of student rather than another. Reviewing your school’s rules and doing an outcome-based analysis of who the rule really affects may help one of the most pressing issues in schools today, closing the achievement gap.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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