Peer-Reviewed Articles

Inevitably, when one thinks of the school-to-prison pipeline, one also thinks of zero tolerance policies. Such policies, which impose harsh punishments for offenses across the board, regardless of the surrounding circumstances, are the object of many campaigns seeking to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. A major problem with these policies is that they tend to disproportionately harm the students that are most in need of support from the school.3 Two articles, “Truancy and Zero Tolerance in High School: Does Policy align with practice?” and “Zero Tolerance: Moving the Conversation Forward” examine how zero-tolerance policies disproportionately harm these highest-need students and propose more targeted and supportive alternatives to these policies. For purposes of the following synopsis, Gage et al. refers to  “Truancy and Zero Tolerance in High School: Does Policy align with practice?” and Evans and Lester refers to “Zero Tolerance: Moving the Conversation Forward.”

The first article examines zero-tolerance policies intended to decrease truancy and how these policies impact certain students within one particular high school in the Northeastern region of the United States. Truancy, or unexcused student absenteeism, is a big school concern, particularly in light of the fact that truancy is related to increased dropout rates and increased risky behaviors, such as persistent substance abuse and aggression toward peers.1 One of the tactics schools have used in trying to decrease truancy has been the implementation of zero tolerance policies. In their study of one high school, Gage et al. evaluated whether these policies disproportionately affected at-risk students in the school. The study examined truancy patterns according to student grade-level, course-type, and student grades.1

Gage et al.’s results indicated that truancy and grade point loss equally impacted all grade levels, but that truant students were more likely to be in low level courses and be receiving IEP services and free or reduced lunch.1 Moreover, students who were previously failing a course had a higher probability of losing additional grade points due to unexcused absences.1 These findings, though not causal, suggest that zero tolerance policies may do more harm than help, and have the effect of especially injuring those students that are most in need of assistance.

Students with disabilities, one of the demographics Gage et al. show to be disproportionately harmed by zero tolerance policies, are the focus of Evans and Lester in “Zero Tolerance: Moving the Conversation Forward.” In this article, Evans and Lester reinforce Gage et. al’s conclusion that zero tolerance policies may be disproportionately burdening students in need of the most help. The authors argue that zero tolerance policies are particularly problematic for students with disabilities, because they force the teachers of these students to adhere to standard punishment policies for certain behaviors, without consideration of what that particular behavior could have meant for that student.2 The unique needs of these students cannot be met when teachers are made to enforce zero tolerance policies.2 Additionally, the authors note evidence that special education students have a higher probability of being suspended or expelled compared to other students.2 Not only are zero tolerance policies preventing the unique needs of special education students from being met, but they are also pushing those students out of school. By pushing these high-needs students out of school, these policies also push them onto the school-prison-track. Evans and Lester support Gage et. al’s finding that zero tolerance policies hurt more than help high-needs students, noting that rather than helping students gain the skills that they need to function socially and behaviorally, zero tolerance policies may actually increase the probability that misbehavior will persist .2

In light of these clear problems with zero tolerance policies, both sets of authors suggest alternatives to school discipline that are more supportive and individualized. Rather than using such harsh policies to address the issue of truancy, Gage et al. suggest “school-wide positive supports,” contextual and targeted approaches that work with specific students to help keep them in school, and making school work more relevant to skills needed in the workplace.1 Evans and Lester reiterate this idea of creating a more positive school culture while also implementing more targeted alternatives. Like Gage et al., Evans and Lester discuss approaches that are more student-centered and include having trained school personnel who can help students who are in crisis, offering mentoring and tutoring services, and offering social services that are targeted to the unique needs of students.2 Evans and Lester further identity five principles that, in their view, can guide the conversation about student discipline. By viewing student behavior as a form of communication, recognizing that the purpose of discipline is to increase the engaged learning time and social/emotional well-being of the student, taking a team-approach, encouraging a school culture that is safe and respectful, and actively changing the overly-punitive disciplinary system, Evans and Lester argue that schools can move beyond zero tolerance and toward disciplinary practices that are conducive to safe schools.2 Ultimately, both sets of authors agree that zero tolerance policies are hurting, not helping the students who need help the most. In light of this, both sets of authors also view supportive disciplinary alternatives as necessary in order for these students to get the help and gain the skills they need to engage in school.

For both articles in full, click on the links below:

“Truancy and Zero Tolerance in High School: Does Policy align with practice?”

“Zero Tolerance: Moving the Conversation Forward”