National Press Club

Panelists Say Zero Tolerance School Discipline Raises Dropout Rates, Shows Racial Bias

October 6, 2011 | By Lorna Aldrich |

Panelists representing school administrators, researchers, judges, parents and students at an Oct. 5 Newsmaker deplored the effect of “zero tolerance” school discipline that uses frequent suspensions. The panelists said suspensions lead to higher rates of school dropouts and eventual incarcerations.

A UCLA researcher released “Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice,” a report from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, at the Newsmaker. The author, Daniel J. Losen of UCLA, explained two aspects of the discipline problem. He said that students were being pushed out of school for infractions that would have led to a visit to the vice-principal’s office in the past and that African American students are being suspended disproportionately.

His report quotes Texas data showing that 31 percent of students in the state were suspended or expelled at least once in their middle and high school years.

Department of Education data cited in the report for the 2006-2007 school year show that 15 percent of black students but only 5 percent of white students were suspended for one day or more. The report also cited North Carolina data obtained in 2010 for first time suspensions for cell phone possessions. Suspensions were over 30 percent for black students, but less than 5 percent of white. “We are seeing clear evidence of racial bias,” he said.

Truancy is one of the leading reasons for suspensions, he noted. “Where is the deterrent value of suspending truant kids?” he asked.

Losen called for better data collected at state, district and school levels because only a few states collect comprehensive data.

Wanda Parker, a mother from Greenville, Mississippi, told the story of her son’s suspension from school for possession of an iPod that was mistaken for a cell phone. Edward Ward, a graduate of a West Side Chicago high school, said the zero tolerance suspensions policy does not “provide a teachable moment,” but “perpetuates the criminalization of youth.”

Two speakers presented alternatives to zero tolerance suspensions and their consequences. Jonathan Brice, School Support Network Officer for Baltimore City Schools, explained policies that have reduced dropout rates by half and increased graduation rates by 20 percent. The Baltimore Schools publish a code of conduct with disciplinary measures for infractions so that there is consistency over all schools. The code eliminates suspension for truancy. Levels of intervention are specified. For example, the first offense for use of a cell phone at school (possession is not an offense) requires only a warning. Further use leads to parental notification.

Brice emphasized developing relationships between students and teachers, administrators and school police, of which there are 142 in the Baltimore system. Training, he said, provides staff and police the needed skills.

Steven Teske, Juvenile Court Judge, Clayton County, Georgia, presented an alternative to school referrals of students to the court systems. In 2004, the county had 1400 such referrals. He convened discussions among court, community and school officials. An established written protocol for referrals reduced them by 78 percent, important, he said, because “Detention is a risk factor itself.” His favored alternative to suspension and expulsion is to “refer kids to a system of care.” Graduation rates in Clayton County increased 20 percent under the plan. Because school police spent less time in court, they were in the schools, got to know students who no longer saw them as “bad guys” and serious weapons charges in the school declined 70 percent, he said.