Friday, January 21, 2022

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 B. Critiques of Zero-tolerance Policies

1. School Violence is Declining

Despite arguments that school violence is currently at endemic levels, data suggest that violence in schools has actually declined in recent years.   Rates of nonfatal victimizations in schools declined dramatically over the past two decades, from nearly 200 victimizations per 1,000 students in 1992 to fewer than 50 victimizations per 1,000 students in 2011.   One might argue that these trends are attributable to zero-tolerance policies. However, rates of nonfatal victimizations away from school fell at similar rates between 1992 and 2011,   which may suggest that the declines were not caused by school policies. *1256 Moreover, although proponents of zero tolerance often point to shootings as evidence of violence in schools, the number of youth homicides in schools remained fairly stable between 1992 and 2011, and they constituted less than 2% of all youth homicides during that period.  

2. Students of Color are Punished Disproportionately

The most common criticism of zero-tolerance policies is that students of color tend to be subjected to harsher punishments under zero-tolerance policies than their white counterparts.   Social-science research supports this argument. One study of school-based arrests in Connecticut found that students of color committing common disciplinary infractions were more likely to be arrested than white students committing the same offenses.   In one town, African-American and Latino students who were caught with drugs, alcohol, or tobacco were ten times more likely to be arrested than similarly situated white students.   Another study of male students in a Midwestern school district found that black students tended to receive harsher punishments than their white peers for similar behavioral infractions.  

To better understand these patterns, Professor Russell Skiba and several colleagues examined underlying factors potentially responsible for racial disparities in school discipline by analyzing data from a large, Midwestern school district.   As in other studies, these researchers found that black students "were overrepresented on all measures of school discipline," including referrals to law enforcement, suspensions, and expulsions.   Yet they also found that there were no statistically significant racial differences in the proportion of incidents resulting in suspension.   Instead, racial disparities in suspension rates appeared to be attributable to "prior disproportionate referral of African American students to the [principal's] office," suggesting that teachers played an important role in determining which students would be punished.  

It also seemed that white and black students were generally referred to the office for different types of disciplinary infractions. White students were commonly referred to the office for "smoking, leaving without permission, vandalism, *1257 and obscene language," whereas black students tended to be referred for "disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering."   The researchers noted that it was "difficult to judge which of these two sets of behaviors is more ‘serious,"' but they also pointed out that the reasons for referrals of black students to the office tended "to require a good deal more subjective judgment on the part of the referring agent."   Based on this evidence, it seems that zero-tolerance policies remain subject to a great deal of inconsistency. Even with seemingly clear-cut policies in place, teachers still decide which infractions are serious enough to report to the office and thereby determine when students are disciplined.

3. Harsh Discipline Pushes Students Out of School

Opponents of zero-tolerance policies also argue that harsh disciplinary policies make schools unwelcoming for students, thereby pushing them "out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems."   Consistent with these claims, research suggests that harsh disciplinary practices can contribute to negative school outcomes. One longitudinal study of a Florida school district found that out-of-school suspensions predicted future suspensions and low academic performance.   In this way, removing students from school often leads those students to continue misbehaving, which may result in additional disciplinary actions and poor achievement in school. Moreover, the size of the student cohort decreased significantly over the course of the longitudinal study as many students dropped out of school. The researchers posited that this pattern probably resulted at least in part from suspensions pushing students out of schools.  

An ethnographic study of young prison inmates in Connecticut also suggested that harsh disciplinary practices such as zero tolerance lead to negative educational outcomes.   Several inmates stated that they were surprised and disillusioned when they learned how their schools responded to disciplinary infractions. For example, a twenty-one-year-old black inmate explained that he was kicked out of school for selling marijuana.   He was then relocated to a school that "wasn't as good" and began "catching little stupid misdemeanors here and little stupid cases there."   But when the young man was wrongly *1258 accused of a crime he did not commit and removed from school in handcuffs, he decided to drop out.  

Based on these studies, it seems that zero-tolerance policies may contribute to high dropout rates among harshly disciplined students. And if students of color are disproportionately subjected to this discipline in the first place,   the negative effects of zero tolerance may have a greater impact on students of color. Thus, it appears that these policies may permanently push students of color out of schools and add to the school-to-prison pipeline.

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