Zero tolerance policies don’t prevent violence at schools

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There is no reason for schools to abandon behavioral interventions and rely on suspension as a deterrent.

CREDIT: iStockPhoto

In Upstate New York’s Syracuse School District, the stabbing of a teacher has sparked debate over the district’s approach toward student discipline. The district changed its policy shortly before the incident in an effort to keep students engaged at school and reduce racial disparities in student discipline, after an investigation from the New York attorney general’s office.

But the stabbing of a teacher by a student in May has reinvigorated opposition to the school’s discipline approach — even though there isn’t any evidence to suggest that the school’s former policy would have prevented a serious incident such as this one.

There were already many critics of Syracuse’s plan, part of a four-year agreement with the attorney general, to change its approach to focus on using restorative practices to resolve conflicts, teaching staff about cultural competency and implicit bias, and emphasizing social-emotional learning instead of pursuing a more punitive path that takes students out of school for long periods of time.

Shortly after the stabbing, Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said that the school district should get rid of its student discipline changes. In an interview with Syracuse.com, Fitzpatrick said the district “has a serious problem with violence, and I’m very concerned about the safety of teachers, administrators and students.” Fitzpatrick also said the district should improve safety by getting rid of its discipline reform, without giving any argument as to why or how a different approach would stop students from hurting teachers.

“You can’t tie their hands because you’re concerned about someone else’s misrepresentation of the statistics,” he said of racial disparities in student discipline, and suggested serious incidents would be reduced by dress code and attendance requirements. Fitpatrick said that the idea that race plays a role in suspensions is “absurd” — but several years of research says otherwise.

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A 2015 Stanford study found that teachers’ responses to student infractions were influenced by racial stereotypes. Teachers were more likely to label black students “troublemakers” after a second infraction than they were white students, and this made teachers interested in disciplining the black student more harshly than white students. Black girls are more than twice as likely to be suspended in every state as white girls, according to a May report from the National Women’s Law Center, but not due to serious misbehavior or frequent outbursts. Researchers told U.S. News and World Report that most of the blame can be placed on the combination of racist and sexist stereotypes used against black girls as well as the fact that they usually attend schools with fewer resources, like counselors.

Syracuse had one of the highest suspension rates in the country and has significantly reduced suspensions through its new approach, but it still struggles to reduce racial disparities. In a public meeting following the stabbing, school district officials told parents and community members that there still aren’t enough mental health workers in Syracuse schools, and encouraged parents to contact lawmakers about school funding. Organizations working with Syracuse to improve its discipline approach said it take as long as several years for school staff and students to embrace these changes. School staff also there is room to improve training for teachers whose students have experienced trauma.

There is evidence that restorative practices can reduce violent incidents. After a year of implementing restorative justice practices, West Philadelphia High School saw violent acts and serious incidents fall by 52 percent in 2007–2008. Moreover, research has found that suspension as a deterrent for misbehavior does not appear to be effective, but that high-quality interventions, such as school services and behavior plans, may reduce misbehavior. A comprehensive 2014 report on Syracuse’s student discipline practices said that research suggests schools that rely too much on suspension and expulsion for discipline may “inadvertently be increasing crime in the community,” because suspensions from school tend to precede serious delinquent activity for black and Latinx students.

In May, one Syracuse parent, Samantha Piece, weighed in on the debate through a letter to Syracuse.com and encouraged people to improve the new discipline system, not tear it down and return to the old one. Under the old system, a white sentry, or a school guard, told a black student with Down syndrome to put his hands on the wall as if he were to be frisked and took a photo as “a funny joke.”

“Whatever anyone thinks about current discipline practices in SCSD, we cannot got back to the conditions highlighted by the Assurance of Discontinuance,” Pierce wrote. “Read the document available on the district website if you don’t understand how disturbing past practices were… The students of SCSD are not stupid. They already know a great many people in this city and its suburbs place little or no value on their lives or their success.”

Zero tolerance policies don’t prevent violence at schools was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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