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An Effective Model of School Violence Prevention

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Is Zero Tolerance an Effective Response?

Recent national events, such as the two year expulsion of eight students for fighting in Decatur, Illinois, have thrust zero tolerance school discipline policies into the national spotlight. Zero tolerance has gained wide popularity among politicians and many administrators for its promise of a no-nonsense solution to a difficult problem.

Yet the application of zero tolerance policies have created controversy at the state and national level.18 Some districts supporting a zero tolerance approach have reported initial increases in weapons confiscated. Yet at the same time, strict application of zero tolerance has led to numerous cases of suspension or expulsion for everything from paper clips to organic cough drops, Midol, or homework completion.

The zero tolerance approach has also led to increases in the use of school suspension and expulsion; unfortunately, there is no evidence that suspension and expulsion are effective in changing student behavior or improving school safety. Despite a widespread perception that suspension and expulsion are reserved for serious incidents, those consequences are often used indiscriminately; in 1997-98, only about 4% of the suspensions and expulsions in Indiana were in response to serious disruptions. Moreover, exclusionary approaches tend to be used inconsistently: one researcher concluded that students wishing to reduce their rates of suspension would do better changing schools than improving their behavior or attitudes. Of serious concern is the racial and economic bias that often seems to accompany the use of suspension and expulsion: African-Americans have typically been found to be suspended at a rate two to three times that of other students, and are sometimes punished more severely for less severe behavior. Finally, while there is little data on the short-term effectiveness of suspension, in the long term, it is associated with higher rates of school dropout. The message of zero tolerance is politically appealing, giving parents and communities the perception that schools are being tough on crime. While there are doubtless situations in which removing a child from school is necessary for that child or others' safety, at present we have no evidence that punishment and exclusion can in and of themselves solve problems of school violence, or teach students alternatives to violence.

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Last updated: Sep. 15, 2000
Comment: safeschl@indiana.edu