Zero-tolerance school-discipline policies are a problem
People have a bad habit of overreacting to one problem and creating another in the process. Zero-tolerance school-discipline policies fall into that category. That's become increasingly clear in recent years, but the policies still linger in many districts.
Seattle Times staff columnist
InformationLeague of Education Voters meeting on solutions: 6:30 p.m. Oct. 18 at Kent Senior Center, 600 E. Smith St.
People have a bad habit of overreacting to one problem and creating another in the process.
Zero-tolerance school-discipline policies fall into that category. That's become increasingly clear in recent years, but the policies still linger in many districts.
The League of Education Voters (LEV) and Our American Generation (OAG) are making a push to change that in Washington state by gathering information and spreading the word about the consequences of current disciplinary policies.
Too often, school discipline doesn't mean correction, but deflection onto a path to further failure. And that is far more likely to be the case for members of some minority groups.
Students suspended once are much more likely to be suspended again, and students disciplined more than once are 31 percent more likely to repeat a grade.
And for all that, studies have found schools were no safer than before zero tolerance.
Maggie Wilkens of LEV and Scott Davis of OAG have been interviewing teachers, students and administrators and gathering data. They moderated a discussion about discipline last Thursday evening in Kent.
They started at the roots of recent discipline policies, which toughened in the early '90s with concerns about gangs, guns and drugs and hardened even more in the wake of the high-school massacre in Columbine, Colo., in 1999.
Wilkens and Davis offered up a list of cases where the unbending rules looked foolish: students expelled for using a finger and a chicken nugget like they were guns; a teen expelled because someone found the box cutter she used in her after-school job was in her car at school.
Few kids bring guns to school, so the policies are used mostly on trivial infractions.
The most thorough study of school discipline so far was done in Texas and followed every incoming freshman in the state for three years. It found teachers were turning to discipline so often that students who hadn't been removed from class at least once were in the minority.
That wasn't true 20 years ago.
In Kent, four panelists spoke about the problem in this state. They said that over the past two decades, schools modeled their approach to discipline on criminal law, a school fight became an assault, and some schools brought in police officers to deal with students.
They offered ideas for improvement, such as giving educators more training, latitude and options.
Sunny Kim, co-director of the Seattle Young People's Project, said districts should end suspension of elementary-school children altogether.
Karen Pillar, an attorney with Team Child, which represents children in civil cases, said schools should shift from pushing students out to engaging them, turning incidents into educational opportunities, when possible. Rigid rules don't always allow that now.
Now, communities around the country are wrestling with how to balance the need for safety and order against the damage no-tolerance policies do.
There are times when tough measures are necessary, but they should not be the tool of first choice, certainly not in a school.
The League of Education Voters will hold a follow-up meeting on solutions, at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 18 at the Kent Senior Center, 600 E. Smith St.
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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