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Monday, September 20, 2021

Column: Ineffective punishment

I remember in middle school and high school, I had to attend yearly presentations of my school’s zero-tolerance policies. The speaker would stand before a crowd of students and tell us what we weren’t allowed to do or bring to school, going on to say that if we broke the rules, the school would suspend or expel us.

In recent times, there have been events where children as young as six were suspended, expelled or sent to reform school for having a cutting knife in their lunchboxes. Such actions have also been taken against high school and middle school students for alcohol, penknives in cars and even aspirins and cough drops.

A zero-tolerance policy is a rule system that basically says, “If you bring any banned objects to school or cause any trouble on campus, you will be punished, no questions asked.”

The most recent information provided by the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that of 767,900 serious disciplinary actions taken in 2007 to 2008 by schools nationwide such as suspension, expulsion, or a school transfer — 327,100 were for insubordination and 271,800 for physical attacks. That’s 21.4 and 31.5 percent, respectively, of all actions. In comparison, 2.8 percent of actions were for possession of a firearm or explosive, 15.3 for possession of a weapon other than a firearm or explosive, and 19.3 and 9.8 percent for drugs and alcohol.

Really? Of all actions taken, 21.4 percent are for insubordination? Isn’t that a bit much? And I have to wonder, how many eating utensils and cutting tools were classified as “weapons that aren’t firearms?”

Public attention has reached the point where the American Psychological Association formed a Zero Tolerance Task Force to study the effects of zero tolerance on students. In fact, their December 2008 publication findings countered several key arguments for the implementation of zero tolerance.

Normally, zero-tolerance proponents say that removing troublesome students creates a better learning environment. However, the study notes a “negative relationship between the use of school suspension and expulsion and school-wide academic achievement, even when controlling for demographics such as socioeconomic status,” showing that a zero-tolerance policy does not actually improve a school’s learning environment.

Proponents also frequently say that zero tolerance deters students from causing trouble, making them better behaved. The association, though, found that “in the long term, school suspension and expulsion are moderately associated with a higher likelihood of school dropout and failure to graduate on time.”

The association also discovered that zero-tolerance policies frequently disrupt the development of adolescence and have contributed to the expansion of juvenile delinquency and the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

This situation seems problematic to me. Schools should be able to create a learning environment without stunting the mental growth of students, while doing their best to retain students and guide them into becoming functioning adults.

So what are some ways to fix the situation?

A popular one is greater discretion on the part of the principal and the teachers. If something is clearly accidental or not harmful, then a brief chat should be more than enough. There’s no need to expel or suspend for minor things.

Expulsion and suspension should be reserved for the most serious cases. Colleges are often made aware of behavioral problems of applicants, and will reject people on the basis of expulsion or suspension alone. It’s completely unfair for a student to have their chances ruined for accidentally bringing a lighter or painkiller to school.

If detention doesn’t work for minor incidents, perhaps mandatory community service might help. A weekend caring for or spending time with the elderly could potentially strengthen school-community bonds and teach the student about being humane.

Most of the zero-tolerance policies for elementary school students should be stripped away. It’s not that they shouldn’t be punished, but that it’s pointless and counterproductive to suspend or expel an eight-year-old. You’re more likely to damage the child’s perceptions than make things better.

It is of crucial importance to protect children in school, especially with the prevalence of gangs, school shootings and fighting. But that doesn’t mean schools can go overboard in their actions. Zero tolerance is a policy with no leeway for reasoning on a subject matter that requires evaluation on a case-by-case basis.

End the zero thought in zero tolerance, and help the children of America truly reach their potential.

Tell DERRICK LEU your thoughts on zero tolerance at derleu@ucdavis.edu 

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