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What are the alternatives to suspension and expulsion in promoting school safety and reducing student disruption?

Despite widespread implementation in response to fears about school violence, there is little data that punitive zero tolerance policies have had a significant effect on improving school safety or student behavior. To identify more effective alternatives, nationally recognized researchers in the field of school violence have begun to look at what works and what doesn't in deterring school violence. Consistently, programs that effectively cut violence are proactive rather than reactive; involve families, students and the community; and include multiple components that can effectively address the complexity of school disruption and violence1. Indeed, preventive programs, such as bullying prevention, peer mediation, or anger management, have far more data available to support their effectiveness than do technology-based fixes such as metal detectors or video surveillance cameras2.

Comprehensive prevention can be highly effective in a surprisingly short period of time. In one inner-city school with rates of dropout approaching 70%-80% among minority youth, consultants worked with teachers, helping them increase their rates of praise and reframe classroom rules to be more positive. In one year, school suspensions dropped by 35%, and over the course of the three-year project, school dropout decreased by almost 40%3.

Recently, a comprehensive model of preventive discipline has begun to emerge as the model most likely to successfully address the complexity of emotional and behavioral problems in schools4. The approach, grounded in the belief that there is no single solution to school violence, prescribes intervention at three levels:

I. Creating a Safe and Responsive School Climate.
To some degree all students require instruction in appropriate methods of solving problems. At the level of school climate, preventive programs such as bullying prevention and conflict resolution teach all students alternatives to violence for resolving conflict.

II. Early Identification and Intervention.
The tragic school shootings of the last three years have highlighted the importance of attending to early warning signs of violence. When used to provide help rather than to profile, early identification is a critical component of school violence prevention.

III. Effective Responses to Disruption and Crisis.
School violence prevention demands that we be prepared for the eventuality of violence. Schools that are safe and responsive have plans and procedures in place to deal with violent and disruptive behaviors that may occur. Over-reliance on suspension and expulsion is replaced by an extensive array of options that can be matched to the severity of the offense.

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What are the assumptions of school violence prevention?

This data on the relationship between "minor" discipline and incivility and serious violence provides the basis for one of the core assumptions of the Safe and Responsive Schools Project. Since day-to-day disruption and serious violence are in some way related, our nation's schools must do all they can on a day-to-day basis to reduce the risk that minor incidents and disruptions will escalate into serious, life-threatening violence. In particular, the approach rests upon three assumptions or principles.

Violence is Preventable.
Serious and dramatic incidents of violence seem frighteningly unpredictable, raising concerns about whether violence is indeed preventable. But prevention can make a difference. As an analogy, it is impossible to predict with certainty who will develop lung cancer, but on average, quitting smoking dramatically reduces the risk of lung cancer. In the same way, there is no guarantee that schools with the most comprehensive programs will be free of violence. But on average, schools that implement more components of violence prevention will see fewer incidents of disruption, and probably lower their chances of serious violence.

There is No Single Quick-Fix.
In the wake of the Columbine tragedy, some schools in Indiana and around the nation have turned to metal detectors, or tough zero tolerance suspensions and expulsions, in the hope that a single strategy can protect schools from violence. Unfortunately, there is little or no data that any single strategy can keep our schools safe. Rather, the most effective programs are comprehensive, applying an array of strategies to promote a safe school climate and respond to disruption.

Effective Prevention Requires Ongoing Planning and Commitment.
School shootings throughout the country have provided a striking reminder that "it can happen here." There can be no room for complacency in maintaining the safety of our schools. Rather, effective programs promoting school safety requires ongoing planning, commitment, and collaboration on the part of school staff, parents, and community members. If it takes a whole village to raise a child, it takes a commitment on the part of all villagers to planned coordination to ensure the safety of that child.

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  1. Elliot, D. S., Hamburg, B. A., & Williams, K. R. (1998). Violence in American schools: A new perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press. Gottfredson, D. (1997). School-based crime prevention. In L. Sherman, D. Gottfredson, D. MacKenzie, J. Eck, P. Ruter, & S. Bushway (Eds.), Preventing crime: What works, what doesn't, what's promising: A report to the United States Congress (pp. 1-74). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
  2. Skiba, R. J., & Peterson, R. (1999). The dark side of zero-tolerance: Can punishment lead to safe schools? Phi Delta Kappan, 80(5), 372-382.
  3. Meyer, G. R., Mitchell, L. K., & Clement-Robertson, E. (1993). A dropout prevention program for at-risk high school students: Emphasizing consulting to promote positive climates. Education and Treatment of Children, 16, 135-146.
  4. American Psychological Association (1993). Violence and youth: Psychology's response. Washington, D.C.: Author. Dwyer, K., Osher, D., & Warger, C. (1998). Early warning, timely response: A guide to safe schools. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education. Walker, H. M., Horner, R. H., Sugai, G., Bullis, M., Sprague, J. R., Bricker, D., & Kaufman, M. J. (1996). Integrated approaches to preventing antisocial behavior patterns among school-age children and youth. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 4(4), 194-209.
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Last updated: November 15, 2000
Comment: safeschl@indiana.edu
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