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Zero-tolerance behavior policies in schools prove harmful, study says

Published: Friday, June 13 2014 7:30 a.m. MDT

A student sits alone at a desk in a hallway. Research shows zero-tolerance programs like detention or suspension is more likely to land a child in a juvenile detention center.

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Schools that focus resources on improving the learning environment lessen cases of misbehavior faster and more effectively than schools that focus on discipline, according to new research.

A study released June 4 by the Council of State Governments Justice Center reported that the number of students breaking rules declined dramatically in schools that focused on preventative measures like ensuring a positive and inviting learning environment. Whereas schools that maintained or increased punishment for broken rules saw no change in student behavior.

The study looked at the success schools had with programs such as "welcome parties" and removing "scare them straight" law enforcement programs from classrooms. Welcome parties consist of school administrators waiting at school entrances for tardy students. Instead of punishing the students they talk to each one for a few minutes, finding out why they were late and making a plan to avoid future tardiness.

The CSG interviewed more than 700 educators, social workers, enforcement officers, health care providers, law and juvenile justice system officials about the effectiveness of current disciplinary action used against students who disrespect school policies.

“Everyone agrees that schools should provide an environment where students and staff feel physically and emotionally safe, connected, fairly treated, and valued,” the study stated. “Unfortunately, promoting a positive school climate often takes a back seat to educators’ and administrators’ efforts to address mandates to improve test scores and graduation rates, even though strong conditions for learning have been shown to help improve academic achievement.”

The study goes beyond pointing out what is wrong, it puts forth more than 60 options for improving a school’s safety while lowering the number of rule-breaking occurrences.

US News reported, “The report also makes recommendations for how school staff and educators can foster a positive school climate, which is associated with fewer incidences of school violence, high academic achievement and minimal engagement in ‘risky behaviors,’ such as substance abuse.”

The CSG study was a follow-up to the 2011 study that looked into the likelihood students who got into trouble at school would end up in juvenile justice system.

“Students who were repeatedly disciplined often experienced poor outcomes at particularly high rates. The Texas study found that 15 percent of Texas students had 11 or more disciplinary violations between seventh and 12th grades; about half of those frequent violators had subsequent contact with the juvenile justice system,” reported Martha Plotkin for Capitol Ideas.

The CSG’s studies are part of its crusade against zero-tolerance policies in schools.

“Harsh ‘zero-tolerance’ disciplinary policies at public schools across the country have produced unnecessary student suspensions for even the slightest violations of conduct, leading to higher risk of failing, dropping out and criminal prosecution for minors, according to a comprehensive new survey released Tuesday,” Nikki Krug reported for the Washington Times.

Michael Thompson, director of the CSG, told the Times the new report’s recommendations on disciplinary policies are “very clearly not meant as national standards.” And they are intended, he said, “to initiate discussion and provide guidance for schools in the process of creating their own policies, while reflecting an unusually broad consensus among multiple stakeholders in the process.”

Every school is encouraged to look at the options and resources that best fit their needs.

EMAIL: nshepard@deseretnews.com TWITTER: @NicoleEShepard

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