The National Education Policy Center has found that suspension rates across the country are increasing due to “zero tolerance” policies, particularly among poor and minority students. The researchers say this is increasing the dropout rate. According to the Los Angeles Times, much of this increase is due nonviolent offenses like dress code and cellphone violations. Nationally, nearly one-third of all black male middle school students have been suspended at least once. In LAUSD, almost 34% of the students suspended from middle schools last year were African American, while about 11% were Latino, 5% were white and 3% were Asian.
It is rare that students are actually suspended for dress code violations or cell phone use. Rather, when students repeatedly violate school policies, argue about it, or refuse the punishment, they may be suspended for defiance.
This, however, reflects schools’ lack of creativity and vision, not students’ relative badness. When a student doesn’t respond to a punishment in the desired way, the assumption is that progressively worse punishments must be applied. However, for many students, suspension is a treat, a respite from the boredom and oppressiveness of school. Furthermore, there is no indication that progressively worse punishments teach kids how to behave properly. Some kids (and adults) don’t accept the rules in the first place and will simply try to defy them without getting caught.
In terms of creativity, it is seldom necessary to suspend a child for violating cell phone policies. If a school does not want students to use cell phones, all they have to do is take them away from students who use them during class time and keep them for a day, week or semester, depending on how often the infraction has occurred, or require parents to come in and pick them up. Dress code violations are also relatively easy to address without suspensions. Provide students with belts or ropes for sagging pants and provide baggy sweats when exposing too much thigh, belly or cleavage. T-shirts with inappropriate language or gang colors can be swapped for shirts with school logos.
Zero-tolerance policies became popular after the deadly Columbine school shootings in 1999. The assumption was that if dangerous behavior was dealt with harshly and quickly, no more children would die in needless school violence. However, even when applied only to weapons, zero-tolerance policies ignore the socioeconomic and psychological factors that contribute to school violence. Consider the case of Brandon McInerney, who grew up in a family with a violent dad who beat and shot his mother, who was an amphetamine addict (see “Perfect Liberal Storm: Guns, Homophobia, Child Abuse”). This was a child who likely never learned any methods for dealing with stress or conflict other than violence.
Zero-tolerance policies, like mandatory minimum sentencing laws, take away the arbiter’s discretionary power to assess the nuances and mitigating factors in a case. For example, I once had a straight-A student who had never been in any kind of trouble who was expelled for bringing a toy gun to school. This was consistent with the school district’s zero-tolerance policy, but made no sense whatsoever in terms of the child’s wellbeing or the safety of other students and staff.