Nearly two decades after a zero-tolerance culture took hold in American schools, a growing number of educators and elected leaders are scaling back discipline policies that led to lengthy suspensions and ousters for such mistakes as carrying toy guns or Advil.
This rethinking has come in North Carolina and Denver, in Baltimore and Los Angeles — part of a phenomenon driven by high suspension rates, community pressure, legal action and research findings. In the Washington region, Fairfax County is considering policy changes after a wave of community concern; school leaders in the District and Prince George’s, Arlington and Montgomery counties have pursued new ideas, too.
The shift is a quiet counterpoint to a long string of high-profile cases about severe punishments for childhood misjudgments. In recent months, a high school lacrosse player was suspended in Easton, Md., and led away in handcuffs for having a pocketknife in his gear bag that he said was for fixing lacrosse sticks. Earlier, a teenager in the Virginia community of Spotsylvania was expelled for blowing plastic pellets through a tube at classmates.
Now, in many areas, efforts are underway to find a more calibrated approach to school discipline. Educators are increasingly focused on the fallout of suspensions, which are linked to lower academic achievement and students dropping out.
In Delaware, for example, zero-tolerance cases were a repeated issue in the Christina School District, where a 6-year-old with a camping utensil that included a knife was suspended in 2009. Discipline procedures were revamped last year, giving administrators the discretion to consider a student’s intent and grade, as well as the risk of harm. Out-of-school suspensions in the state’s largest school system fell by one-third in a year.
“It’s a more child-centered approach,” said Wendy Lapham, a spokeswoman for the Christina schools.
In North Carolina, zero- tolerance also is being ratcheted back in the Wake County School District, the state’s largest. “This has been the biggest overhaul of our discipline policies in the last 30 years,” said Wake school board member Keith Sutton, who concluded that suspension numbers were so high at two schools that it was like “zero- tolerance gone wild.”
Taking a tough stand
Zero-tolerance ideas became part of federal education law under the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which mandates that those who bring firearms to school be expelled. Many states and school systems jumped in over the years, adopting automatic punishments for drug possession and behavioral offenses. It was a time of abiding concern about school safety, intensified by the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.
More broadly, it was a time of tough attitudes toward criminal sentencing, years when three-strikes laws were popular and political leaders had declared a war on drugs.
Now, “it’s become evident that simply suspending students and putting them on the street comes back and bites you,” said Bob Wise, a former governor of West Virginia and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.
Views of discipline and behavior also are changing as schools embrace anti-bullying programs and other prevention-oriented approaches.
One widely popular strategy, known as positive behavior support, uses structured methods for teaching behavior, with prompting, practice and intervention. Suspensions still occur, but the goal is to keep problems from happening in the first place. Nationally, 14,000 schools are involved — including schools in the District and in Loudoun, Alexandria, Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Prince William counties.
“I think school districts are trying to create a variety of different options so suspension is not the only thing on the list,” said Catherine Bradshaw, associate director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence.
In Indiana, a new law requires school systems to create plans to modernize school discipline, with positive-behavior support and a review of zero-tolerance. In Denver, a multiyear discipline reform effort was sparked by a community group, Padres & Jovenes Unidos (Parents and Youths United).
In Baltimore, it started with a new superintendent seeking to turn around the school system. Suspensions are now no longer given for attendance violations, and most consequences ratchet up gradually. Out-of-school suspensions were down 38 percent in 2009-2010, compared with three years earlier, said Jonathan Brice, executive director for student support and safety in city schools.
“It’s incumbent on schools to have a wide range of consequences, at the very end of which are suspension and expulsion,” Brice said. “Previously, the mind-set was very focused on suspension as a solution.”