August 9, 2006

Zero Tolerance Policies Are Not as Effective as Thought in Reducing Violence and Promoting Learning in School, Says APA Task Force

Research finds that mandatory discipline can actually increase bad behavior and drop out rates in middle and secondary students

NEW ORLEANS - A review of the school discipline research shows that zero tolerance policies developed in the 1980s to stop drug use and curtail unruly and violent behavior in schools are not as successful as thought in creating safer environments to learn. These policies, which mandate that schools severely punish disruptive students regardless of the infraction or its rationale, can actually increase bad behavior and also lead to higher drop out rates, according to the American Psychological Association's (APA) report. Based on these results, the APA today adopted a resolution recommending ways to target discipline more effectively in order to keep schools safe while also eliminating the need for a one-size-fits-all punishment for misbehavior.

APA's governing body, the Council of Representatives, commissioned the Zero Tolerance Task Force to examine the research conducted to date on the effects zero tolerance policies have on children in schools. The task force reviewed the last 10 years of research to determine whether these policies have made schools safer without taking away students' opportunity to learn; whether they incorporated children's development as a factor in types of discipline administered; and whether educators referred juveniles to the justice system too often with costly consequences. Lastly, the review showed how families and communities are affected by these policies.

According to the report's findings, schools are not any safer or more effective in disciplining children than before these zero tolerance policies were implemented in the mid 1980s. The research also shows that while school violence is a serious issue, violence in schools is "not out-of-control."

Furthermore, the evidence suggests that zero tolerance policies do not increase the consistency of discipline in schools. According to the report, rates of suspension and expulsion in schools vary widely and can actually increase disciplinary action for those students who are temporarily withdrawn from school. The research also shows that schools with higher rates of suspensions and expulsions have a less than satisfactory rating of climate and governance and spend a disproportionate amount of time disciplining students. The evidence also shows that zero tolerance policies have not been successful at decreasing racial biases in disciplining students. The report found that a disproportionate number of students of color are still overrepresented in expulsions and suspensions, especially for African Americans but also for Latinos. "This uneven representation of discipline," said the report chair, Cecil Reynolds, PhD, professor at Texas A&M University, "may happen because neither teachers nor school safety or security personnel are trained to evaluate or understand cultural differences that may influence behavior."

The zero tolerance policies also do not consider children's lapses in judgment or developmental immaturity as a normal aspect of development, said Dr. Reynolds. "Many incidents that result in disciplinary action in school happen because of an adolescent's or a child's poor judgment-not due to an intention to do harm. Zero tolerance policies may exacerbate the normal challenges of adolescence and possibly punish a teenager more severely than warranted. Zero tolerance policies ignore the concept of intent even though this is a central theme in American concepts and systems of justice." Evidence also shows that zero tolerance policies have increased referrals to the juvenile justice system for infractions once handled in the schools.

Having to go outside the school system to deal with an unruly adolescent puts more stress on families and communities who may already be involved with school personnel. According to the review, those parents and other family members with teenagers who get suspended or expelled from school end up spending more money on incarceration ($40,000.00 a year versus $7,000.00 for yearly education) once their children get involved with the justice system. Costs are also incurred if students drop out of school from uninsured medical expenses, welfare, and treatment for increases in mental health problems.

There are strategies, according to the report findings, that can target disciplinary actions to specific misbehaviors without giving up school safety and mandating all students to the same punishment. Three levels of intervention are offered as alternatives to the current zero tolerance policies. Primary prevention strategies could target all children. Secondary strategies could target those students who may be at-risk for violence or disruption and tertiary strategies could target those students who have already been involved in disruptive or violent behavior. Initial reports of these strategies show reduced office referrals, school suspensions and expulsions and improved ratings on measures of school climate. The APA report does not recommend abandoning Zero Tolerance Policies but rather their modification so they can actually accomplish their original intent, to make schools a safer, more secure environment for all students and teachers. Based on current research findings, the APA recommends the following changes to zero tolerance policies:

  • Allow more flexibility with discipline and rely more on teachers' and administrators' expertise within their own school buildings.
  • Have teachers and other professional staff be the first point of contact regarding discipline incidents.
  • Use zero tolerance disciplinary removals for only the most serious and severe disruptive behaviors.
  • Replace one-size-fits all discipline. Gear the discipline to the seriousness of the infraction.
  • Require school police and related security officers to have training in adolescent development.
  • Attempt to reconnect alienated youth or students who are at-risk for behavior problems or violence. Use threat assessment procedures to identify those at risk.
  • Develop effective alternatives for learning for those students whose behavior threatens the discipline or safety of the school that result in keeping offenders in the educational system, but also keep other students and teachers safe.

Task Force on Zero Tolerance: Chair: Cecil R. Reynolds, PhD, Texas A&M University; Jane Conoley, EdD, University of California at Santa Barbara; Enedina Garcia-Vazquez, PhD, New Mexico State University; Sandra Graham, PhD, University of California at Los Angeles; Peter Sheras, PhD, University of Virginia; and Russell Skiba, PhD, Indiana University.

For more information/interview contact: Dr. Reynolds at 512-656-5075 or by email.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.