Monday, July 25, 2016

Zero tolerance laws increase suspension rates for black students, research shows

Zero tolerance laws increase suspension rates for black students, research shows:

Zero tolerance laws increase suspension rates for black students, research shows

Sad black child (Shutterstock)

The State Senate of Michigan is currently considering legislation that would scale back “zero tolerance” discipline policies in the state’s public schools.
Zero tolerance discipline laws require automatic and generally severe punishment for specified offenses that could range from possessing weapons to physical assault. They leave little leeway for consideration of the circumstances of the offense.
The bill, already approved by the State House, proposes to add provisions that would consider the contextual factors around an incident, such as the student’s disciplinary history, and would ask whether lesser forms of punishment would suffice.
In other words, suspension and expulsion would no longer be as “mandatory” and there would be a little more “tolerance” in these state discipline laws.
As a researcher of education policy and school discipline, I would highlight that these revisions, some of which have been passed in other states, represent a significant change of course for state school discipline law.
In fact, my recent work and that of others suggests that the shift away from zero tolerance approaches is for the better.

Why zero tolerance policies were introduced

Throughout the 1990s, the number of states with zero tolerance laws, those requiring suspension or expulsion for specified offenses, increased significantly.
The rapid adoption of such laws was spurred in part by the passage of the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, federal legislation that required states to adopt mandatory expulsion laws for possessing a firearm in school.
These safety concerns were further heightened by the shooting that took place at Columbine High School, a public high school in Littleton, Colorado.
Following Columbine, by the early 2000s, nearly every state had a zero tolerance law in place. Many of these laws expanded beyond firearms to include other weapons, physical assaults and drug offenses.

Push back against zero tolerance

Clearly, such zero tolerance laws were meant to improve the safety and order of the school environment. However, in recent years, they have been seen as being overly prescriptive and as contributing to racial disparities in school discipline.
For instance, there are cases of students being suspended for accidentally bringing apocketknife to school. In one high-profile case, a student was suspended for chewing a pastry into the shape of a gun.
Additionally, federal data show that black students are suspended at rates two to three times higher than their white peers.
As a result, in 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education issued a joint “Dear Colleague” letter directed to public school districts. The letter was a call for reductions in the use of suspensions and expulsions and, instead, for a focus on ensuring the fair use of school discipline for students of all backgrounds.

Here’s what new research shows

In a newly published study, I explored the implications of state zero tolerance laws – laws that require school districts to adopt zero tolerance policies.
In particular, I sought to find out if they contributed to increased use of suspensions and if they led to racial disparities. Given claims by proponents of such laws that they increase the safety and order of the school overall, I also wanted to see if these laws Zero tolerance laws increase suspension rates for black students, research shows: