In recent years, a zero-tolerance disciplinary model has dominated American schools.  Zero-tolerance measures emerged in the mid-nineties and grew significantly to include a broad range of minor infractions in the heyday of “tough on crime” policies.  In some respects, these policies can be thought of as mandatory minimum sentences for students.  A typical zero-tolerance district in Texas, for example, may hand out suspensions and criminal citations for anything from sleeping to swearing to carrying Advil to chewing gum.  Texas, however, does appear to be changing, and The Washington Post is reporting that other states appear to be changing too.

According to the Post, the American Psychological Association researched zero-tolerance disciplinary frameworks and found no evidence that these policies improve school safety.  In fact, the lengthy school suspensions associated with such policies correlate significantly with lower academic achievement and higher dropout rates.

States have come to realize that such draconian measures do not prevent further disciplinary infractions, and may actually exacerbate the problems.  The Post article indicates that districts are therefore shifting to a more prevention-based approach. While this approach will not eliminate suspensions, it should greatly reduce their number because such measures are designed not to punish a problem child, but to prevent him or her from becoming one in the first place.  Now administrators will have a wide variety of punishment options available to them, and they have the benefit of choosing one that is appropriate to the harm done.

The Washington, DC area in particular has seen major improvements, specifically in the Northern Virginia districts.  Suspensions have plummeted and been replaced by more effective measures such as parent conferences, behavior contracts, and after-school sessions.  Not only do such measures keep kids in school and learning, but they actually help to improve behavior instead of marking children as criminals and throwing them out of school with an unfounded hope that they will just “straighten up.”