Introduction

Although there can be no dispute that schools must do all that can be done to ensure the safety of learning environments, controversy has arisen about the use of zero tolerance policies and procedures to achieve those aims.

In response to that controversy, and to assess the extent to which current practice benefits students and schools, in June of 2005, the American Psychological Association convened a 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.

Findings

An extensive review of the literature found that, despite a 20-year history of implementation, there are surprisingly few data that could directly test the assumptions of a zero tolerance approach to school discipline, and the data that are available tend to contradict those assumptions.

Moreover, zero tolerance policies may negatively affect the relationship of education with juvenile justice and appear to conflict to some degree with current best knowledge concerning adolescent development.

Recommendations

To address the needs of schools for discipline that can maintain school safety while maximizing student opportunity to learn, the report offers recommendations for both reforming zero tolerance where its implementation is necessary and for alternative practice to replace zero tolerance where a more appropriate approach is indicated.

Recommendations include applying zero tolerance policies with greater flexibility that takes school context and teacher expertise into account, and mandating that teachers and other professional staff who have regular contact with students serve as the first line of communication with parents and caregivers regarding disciplinary incidents. The task force also recommends reserving zero tolerance disciplinary removals for only the most serious and sever of disruptive behaviors, and replacing one-size-fits-all disciplinary strategies with graduated systems of discipline, where consequences are geared to the seriousness of the infraction. Most importantly, the group recommends implementing preventive measures that can improve school climate and promote a sense of school community and belongingness.

Task Force members

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

Russell Skiba, PhD
Indiana University