Zero tolerance policies in schools, intended to reduce school violence and behavior problems, can actually have the opposite effect, according to a report of the APA Zero Tolerance Task Force adopted by APA's Council of Representatives at its August meeting.

The task force reviewed 10 years of research on the effects of zero tolerance policies in middle and secondary schools and concluded that such policies not only fail to make schools safe or more effective in handling student behavior, they can actually increase the instances of problem behavior and dropout rates.

The research also showed that zero tolerance policies failed to increase the consistency of discipline across student groups and failed to decrease uneven enforcement of punishment across racial lines.

There are discipline strategies, according to the task force report, that can target disciplinary actions to specific misbehaviors without sacrificing school safety or mandating all students to the same punishment. Three levels of intervention are recommended: primary prevention strategies targeting all students; secondary strategies targeting those students at risk for violence or disruption; and tertiary strategies targeting those students who have already been involved in violent or disruptive behavior.

The report does not recommend that schools abandon zero tolerance policies, but that they be modified to allow for more flexibility and so that individual teachers and administers can use their judgment on appropriate responses to incidents that take place in their classrooms or buildings.

"Many incidents that result in disciplinary action in school happen because of an adolescent's or child's poor judgment, not due to an intention to harm," states Cecil Reynolds, PhD, task force chair. "Zero tolerance policies may exacerbate the normal challenges of adolescence and possibly punish a teenager more severely than warranted."

--R. Farberman