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A shift away from zero tolerance will improve school discipline (+video)

Zero tolerance for bad behavior is common in American schools, but this policy has often proved ineffective, even harmful to students and schools. The tide is turning. A method that relies on communication between students, teachers, and others improves accountability and school safety.

Commentary: Joshua Goodman outlines the challenges facing American schools, and compares them to more successful school systems in other countries.
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As the school year gets under way, teachers and administrators will grapple with how to maintain discipline and ensure safety. New policies and a growing chorus of criticism indicate that harsh “zero tolerance” discipline policies in schools may be on the wane nationally.

That’s a good thing: Zero tolerance policies that rely heavily on suspensions and expulsions for most conduct infractions have become commonplace in American schools in recent decades, but they have proved ineffective, even harmful to students and school environments.

School districts are starting to see the light. In June, the Michigan State Board of Education issued a resolution calling for schools “to adopt discipline policies without mandated suspension or expulsion for issues that do not involve weapons.” In May, the Colorado General Assembly passed a “smarter discipline” bill eliminating mandatory expulsion except for firearms, and giving schools more discretion over suspensions. More recently, school districts in Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia altered their codes of conduct to limit suspensions and expulsions.

The American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force issued a report in 2008 concluding that severe punishment at schools neither reduces violence nor promotes learning. The report asserts that zero tolerance can actually increase bad behavior, lead to higher dropout rates, and increase referrals to the juvenile justice system for infractions once handled in the schools.

So if zero tolerance isn’t the answer to creating safer, saner schools, what is?

Schools could do what City Springs, an elementary and middle school in Baltimore did. Fights at that school were a daily occurrence when Principal Rhonda Richetta arrived in 2007, but last year they dwindled to zero, according to the school’s discipline data. Suspensions went from 86, in the 2008-2009 school year, to 10 a year later.

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