Why Schools Are Abandoning Zero Tolerance
Even the theory’s biggest promoter has. But what is the alternative?
When John King was made acting Secretary of Education last fall, educational activists questioned President Barack Obama’s selection. After all, King was the founder of Boston’s Roxbury Prep, a school that exemplified the zero-tolerance discipline policies.
Roxbury boasted some of the highest test scores and graduation rates in the country for inner city kids. But its accomplishments came at a huge cost: suspending nearly 60 percent of its students and dumping students back into the regular public school system who did not meet the school’s standards.
The Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan no longer supported zero-tolerance policies like those at Roxbury, and I wondered whether the new secretary, King, would hold to his previous positions on discipline or get on board with this new department policy. I raised that question in a column for Urban Milwaukee explaining why Milwaukee Public Schools had moved away from the zero tolerance approach.
As it turns out, King was moving away from the policy as well.
In a speech this summer before the National Charter Schools Conference in Nashville King stated that it was time for “rethinking discipline.” According to King, nearly three million students were suspended during the 2013-2014 school year, and those suspensions often were counterproductive. Suspended students were more likely to “be retained in grade or to drop out, and we know exclusionary discipline feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.”
But King also stated that schools needed to be safe, orderly places. The choice shouldn’t be between zero-tolerance and chaos. Schools needed to create a culture where students would want to do their best, where students are supported, and alternatives to suspensions and expulsions get students back on the right track.
Back in Milwaukee, a military-style voucher school, Right Step, had similar support until parents countered in a lawsuit that their children were punched, kicked, slapped, and required to endure humiliating acts such as lying in their own vomit or drinking from a cup filled with an instructor’s spit, the Journal Sentinel reported.
In July, the City of Milwaukee was forced to sell an empty MPS building to Right Step under the provisions of a new state law, but the city is fighting to deny the program an occupancy permit.
However, the alternative to zero-tolerance can’t be chaos.
Reporter Dan O’Donnell raised this same issue in his WISN radio segment entitled “Blood on the Blackboard: Violence Against Teachers in Milwaukee Public Schools,” which aired in June. He featured the stories of several MPS teachers who were kicked, punched, and brutalized by students in their schools. But their principals, according to these teachers, did little or nothing because they were under orders to get their suspension rates down. The end of zero-tolerance had turned to chaos.
I told O’Donnell it was difficult to determine to what extent some schools were in chaos due to the ending of zero-tolerance policies in MPS. Were these problems wide-spread or was O’Donnell just hearing from a handful of vocal teachers?
Perhaps some principals simply did not feel they had real alternatives to suspensions which meant that students felt they could do anything they wanted without any repercussions. But if all we do is suspend students, then what? Do we end up with teenagers out stealing cars or causing other problems because they have been suspended from school so many times they are no longer regular attenders?
I told O’Donnell, “There are two ways you can get suspensions down. One way is that you can have good alternatives in which you have everybody on the same page, and you have good rapport with your students, and you will get your suspension rate down. The other way is that you don’t suspend anybody, and the kids run wild.”
We can’t let the kids run wild, and we may not be able to return disruptive students back to a regular classroom, so we must have alternative and preventive programs, not just kicking the kids out onto the street.
MPS is training educators, establishing Restorative Justice programs and alternative schools. The school system would like to hire more psychologists and counselors; however, MPS receives state funding mostly for education, less for other support services.
So Secretary King might be correct to rethink our zero-tolerance policies. The real question is what to put in its place.
Terry Falk is a Milwaukee school board member, former teacher and longtime free lance writer.