How Non-Zero Tolerance Policies Better Support Our Students: Part II

As I discussed in a previous post, one of the most controversial approaches to school discipline in the U.S. is the use of zero-tolerance policies. These policies include exclusionary practices, such as office referrals and suspension, which remove students from their classroom and isolate them from the school community. Zero tolerance policies in schools have been shown to have a detrimental effect on all students, particularly Black and Brown students. Skiba et al (2011), for instance, wrote about how these punitive methods cause students to miss critical instructional time and feel less connected to their teachers and peers. 

Zero tolerance policies are embedded in high-stakes accountability structures. As White (2020) states, these policies overly focus on student behavior and the idea that individual hard work is the best way to promote high test scores. They do not foster a sense of community- and relationship- building. While policymakers had positive intentions in promoting a more rigorous and equalitarian experience for students—laying out each infraction and punishment with the intention of applying discipline uniformly across student groups—that is not what has happened. According to the aforementioned research, Black and Brown students were still punished more harshly for the same infractions than were their peers. Thus, the negative consequences of these policies have far outweighed the benefits. 

Many schools are implementing alternative methods of discipline that stress the importance of taking proactive measures to reduce exclusionary practices. In the previous post, I focused on the importance of restorative justice policies as a strong strategy to support children and their development. But there are also multiple alternative models that have been shown to be effective among students of varying ages and demographics. These models focus on relationship development, and staff training, which I will discuss below. Specifically, the three other models include: School Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS), Monarch Room, and Inclusive Skill-Building Learning Approach (ISLA). In short, the idea that zero tolerance is the only approach is unsupportable.

School Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS) is a system-level, positive and preventative behavior approach that can be organized into three tiers of support, depending on how much structure the student needs (Simonsen et al., 2012). The Monarch Room is a trauma-informed alternative to suspension policies that provide a physical safe space for students when they are expressing challenge behaviors (Baroni, 2020). Finally, the Inclusive Skill-Building Learning Approach (ISLA) is an extension of PBIS and not only trains staff members to use preventative strategies schoolwide, but is also designed to “minimize the use of exclusion, respond effectively to problem behaviors, and establish systematic processes to ensure that students are equitably supported” (Nese, 2020). 

While some of these models overlap, they also maintain somewhat distinct philosophies and have different assumptions about children. For example, PBIS does not fully meet the needs of students once they have left the classroom, particularly in middle and high school (Nese, 2020). ISLA focuses on reducing lost instructional time through its two components: schoolwide systems that embed a graduated discipline process and practices that reconnect and coach students and a strong classroom reentry process. 

All of these models of discipline, along with restorative justice practices, emphasize the importance of taking proactive measures to reduce the use of exclusionary punitive practices. Relationship-building and staff training are two themes that arose from my research that encourage educators to take proactive measures.

The first theme, relationship-building, is critical amongst community members and between educators and students. Sheldon & Epstein (2002) found that both parenting and volunteering were two critical ways to reduce discipline within school. Specifically, increasing support for good behavior at home and encouraging parents to volunteer in school creates consistent expectations for students. Not only were parental involvement and volunteering two critical ways to reduce the percentage of students subject to discipline, but community partnerships also benefit students. 

Relationship-building is also critical for teachers, who must spend time getting to know the whole child and building strong relationships. Anyon et al. (2018) stressed the importance of cultivating relationships, particularly with students of color, who reported feeling less safe and connected to adults in schools. She notes that “building relationships with students transformed discipline processes from a one-sided administrative practice to an opportunity for personal growth” (2018). She also found, based on her interviews with teachers, that relationships positively affect students, particularly students of color. Strong relationships also foster a more positive school climate, which heightens students' engagement in school. In short, relationships provide a critical foundation for student success in K-12 education that eliminates the use of zero tolerance policies and heightens a positive school culture.

The second theme common to disciplinary approaches that can serve as alternatives to zero tolerance is staff training. This training should give teachers the opportunity to attend workshops to successfully implement these programs. Not only do teachers require initial training, but it is important to provide adequate ongoing training to shift teachers’ mindsets toward a more innovative alternative discipline model (Hannigan & Hannigan, 2019). Educators should have communication with leadership or external trainers to address specific questions. Knowledge, practice, and consistent support are critical components for a successful implementation.

Schools positively affect students when educators (and parents/community members) take proactive measures to diminish exclusionary practices. This enhances both students’ feelings of connectedness in schools as well as their academic experience. When school staff members take proactive measures, students are able to learn what is expected of them and they have a clear understanding of school rules. Additionally, students feel more safe in classrooms that use proactive approaches to discipline (Nese et al., 2020). This way, they are willing to take risks and know the adults are there to support them and instruct them when they cause a problem. 

It is time for policymakers, education leaders, and teachers to move away from punitive policies and focus on methods to support students’ growth and development, both behaviorally and academically. It only remains for policymakers to adopt them and provide the support to implement them well.

- Lauren Schneider

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