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Q&A on Discipline and Policing

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School-to-Prison Pipeline 101

School to Prison Pipeline 101

What is zero tolerance?

In its purest form, “zero tolerance” describes a school policy that “assigns explicit, predetermined punishments to specific violations of school rules, regardless of the situation or context of the behavior.” The rationale is that serious offenses should be met with firm discipline. But zero tolerance policies were never applied equally to all students. The policies have been applied disproportionately to students of color, English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and LGBT students, and the meaning of “zero tolerance” has only broadened over time. Today, “zero tolerance” refers to the culture spawned by zero tolerance approaches — an array of policies and practices that mandate or facilitate the removal of students from school for a broad range of behaviors.

Since 1994, federal law has mandated that each state adopt a law requiring local educational agencies to expel any student who is determined to have brought a firearm to a school, or possessed a firearm on school grounds, for at least one year. These laws may permit the head of a school system to modify the punishment on a case-by-case basis. Local school systems are also required to refer any student who brings a firearm or weapon to school to the criminal justice or juvenile delinquency system. Finally, these policies must be consistent with the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that protects students with disabilities.


According to the US Education Department, a typical district-level zero-tolerance policy results in the mandatory expulsion of any student who is accused of committing a specified offense. Such a policy would be considered “zero tolerance” even if a superintendent can modify the expulsion on a case-by-case basis.

As “zero tolerance” policies were written into state law and school law, they were not confined to the most serious situations. Typically, the definition of “weapon” was broadened beyond the federal definition of a “firearm.” Other vague offenses – such as “ongoing open defiance,” “habitually disruptive behavior,” and “disturbing schools” – became grounds for suspension, expulsion, or arrest. The maximum penalties for certain infractions were also increased. And policies were adopted mandating that police be notified in specific instances.


As a result, punishment came to be applied to a broad range of student behaviors that were seen to be disorderly or disruptive, even as overall levels of school and youth violence declined. What may have started out as policy driven by a concern about keeping dangerous weapons out of schools has expanded to include a variety of offenses that have pushed large numbers of students out of school.

What’s the problem with removing students from school as a disciplinary measure?

Suspension, expulsion, and police intervention are being used to remove large numbers of students from school for a broad range of alleged infractions. Removal places young people at greater risk for disengagement from school, dropping out, chronic underemployment, and future involvement with the justice system. 

This is not a wise way to handle school-based conflicts, especially when — as is often the case — they don’t pose major safety concerns. Due process, equal treatment, and basic fairness are often sacrificed in the rush to remove students from schools. Finally, there is a lack of evidence that removal under these circumstances improves school environment and safety. School officials should correct the problems associated with excessive reliance on removing students from school and adopt alternatives that have been proven to work.


Why is it important to grant students due process in discipline matters?

Under due process — a central principle in the Constitution — a fair and lawful procedure must be followed before an individual right can be taken away. In school discipline, this would mean that a student who is accused of an offense is informed about the alleged wrongdoing, is shown whatever information an official may be acting on, and is given the chance to tell his or her side of the story and present other evidence or witnesses.

Using due process helps school officials get to the bottom of incidents and conflicts. It helps protect students if the wrong person is accused, the incident report does not reflect what actually happened, a false allegation is made, or the incident results from other problems in the school environment that need attention. Due process has an added benefit: When students feel that they are being treated fairly, they are more likely to accept school policies and to respect the people who administer them, even if they disagree with those policies.


What explains the difference in discipline rates found for students of different races?

Black students and Latinx students are the most likely to face disciplinary punishment in Pennsylvania’s public schools. Federal officials and academic researchers have concluded that there is no evidence that disparities in discipline rates for Black students are due to higher rates of misbehavior.

Several factors have been identified by experts to help explain these disparities. First, school rules are selectively enforced to the detriment of some groups of students. Black students are more likely to be disciplined — and to be disciplined more severely — than other students who exhibit the same behaviors. Recent research indicates that differences in the treatment and support of Black students once they enter school are likely the single biggest contributors to racial disparities in punishment.

The problem is further exacerbated by schools that establish rules which, intentionally or unintentionally, negatively impact a certain race or ethnicity of students. A good example would be certain clothing rules. Federal officials have stated that, in some instances, these rules are discriminatory (and in violation of the law), especially when they serve no legitimate educational objectives or those objectives might be met by policies that don’t single out specific racial groups.

Finally, Black students tend to be referred to the principal’s office more often for violations that are measured subjectively, such as “disruption” or “defiance,” while white students are more likely to be referred for offenses that can be determined by objective observation, such as smoking.

Is school discipline that removes children from school a problem for only Black and Latinx students?

No. Discipline practices that favor removal from school may affect a broad range of students. Students with disabilities are also much more likely to be punished than their non-disabled peers. Students of color with disabilities are disciplined at particularly high rates. The results are higher rates of involvement with the criminal justice system and lost days of classroom instruction due to out-of-school suspensions.


​There is also a racial-gender dimension to school discipline. Nationally and in Pennsylvania, Black female students are punished at higher rates than women of other races or ethnicities and most men. In Pennsylvania, Black boys with disabilities are arrested at the highest rates, followed by Latinx boys with disabilities, Black girls, Latinx girls, and all white students. Black girls are arrested at five times the rate of white girls.


Moreover, some Pennsylvania districts with high out-of-school suspension rates have few students of color. Notably, many of the students who were victims of the “kids for cash” scandal in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania were white.

LGBT youth, especially young women, are punished by school and criminal justice systems at greater rates than their involvement in negative behaviors. More research is needed to understand how discipline disparities affect LGBT students.


What can districts do to reduce racial disparities in discipline?

The first step is to assess whether there is a problem. School officials should regularly review discipline data to determine whether discipline rates show persistent disparities. The next step is to examine the leading reasons for discipline for different groups of students. Do certain groups of students tend to be disciplined more frequently for certain offenses? Discussion within the school community can be revealing. Students, parents, and guardians can provide clues about the selective enforcement of school rules and other underlying problems contributing to discipline disparities. Schools should change codes of student conduct that use broad and subjective categories of offenses. 


Do charter schools have the same discipline policies as traditional public schools?

No. Charter schools receive public funding, but are run independently. Charters have their own student codes of conduct, which are typically very different from those of regular public schools and tend to be more restrictive. Several concerns have been raised about the practices of some charters: punishing students more frequently than regular public schools do for minor nonviolent infractions; failing to grant due process in disciplinary matters; engaging in informal practices that exclude students from school; and encouraging families to disenroll their students (transferring them back into the traditional public system) when there is a discipline infraction. But charter schools have the same obligations as other public schools to treat students fairly.


If we reduce out-of-school suspensions, will that make schools more disorderly?

No. In most schools, there does not appear to be a relationship between the frequency of students’ removal from school and how peaceful a school is. Creating positive school environments requires shifting the emphasis of discipline policies away from zero tolerance to practices that increase fairness, improve communication, and establish problem-solving mechanisms. This requires effort and buy-in from the community as a whole. Some promising approaches include positive behavior intervention and support, restorative practices, social and emotional learning, and improved classroom management. Adoption of these approaches has led to reduction in the use of exclusionary discipline, a reduction in the amount of instructional time lost to discipline, and increased student engagement with school.

Finally, it is important that school discipline systems be reviewed and reformed as a whole, not piecemeal. Some districts have reduced suspensions only to see more students get arrested for the same violations. This is not a desirable outcome. We recommend reserving the most serious consequences (school removal and police assistance) for the most dangerous offenses.


What’s the matter with adding police officers to work in schools?

Traditionally, police have engaged with schools mostly to respond to emergencies involving threats or major acts of violence or to provide security near schools at arrival and dismissal times and at special events. The growing trend of having police stationed in schools full-time is concerning because when police see schools as their beat, they tend to get involved in routine student conflicts and disciplinary matters that are not particularly dangerous or violent. This may happen by choice or at the request of educators. In some instances, what may be a minor infraction (such as a violation of the cell-phone policy) escalates when the intervening adult is a law enforcement officer


The boundaries between police and educators have become less clear — who decides what when interacting with students — and the degree of collaboration between police and educators has increased in the past two decades. Generally speaking, school officials have more authority over day-to-day in-school matters, such as searches of student belongings and the questioning of students, than outside law enforcement. Students may become confused about when in-school police are acting as school officials or as law enforcement, and what rights students have in those interactions.

Another concern is that school districts may be liable for the actions of security staff and police, including discriminatory behavior. Finally, having police stationed in schools increases the possibility of students becoming involved with the justice system in some way, such as through arrest or citation.


What promising school policing reforms are being adopted?

Communities around the country are beginning to reconsider how police are used in schools. Data about the effectiveness of these policy changes are not yet available, but here are some of the adjustments under way:

  • In Philadelphia, School District police face restrictions in low-level conflicts and classroom management matters. A new directive issued in the spring of 2014 states that some incidents should not trigger a call for police services: failure to follow classroom rules/disruption, dress code violations, failure to carry hall pass/appropriate ID, failure to participate in class/unpreparedness, truancy/excessive tardiness/cutting class, possession of beepers/pagers/cell phones/other electronic devices, possession of other inappropriate personal items, inappropriate use of electronic devices, and verbal altercations.

  • The Oakland, Calif., Unified School District has established a formal complaint process for parents and students to use when they feel that school police have behaved inappropriately.

  • The San Francisco School District has adopted a policy stating that student arrests for non-school matters should not normally be made on campus and that any on-campus arrest should be conducted in a way that does not violate the student’s privacy.

  • San Francisco also has a policy that allows parents/guardians to have adequate time to get to school to be present at the questioning of their child by police.

  • In May of 2014, the Philadelphia Police Department established a diversion program for all schools in the city (public, private, or charter) providing alternatives to arrest for minor offenses, first-time offenses, and cases in which students are unlikely to reoffend. (See program brochure and memorandum of understanding)

Finally, there is a growing movement of parents, students, and advocates calling for an end to the regular full-time stationing of police in schools. Police would be called in to provide services in emergency situations or where there is risk of major injury.  On those occasions, they should be strictly regulated. Instead, the focus is on creating safe schools by supporting student-centered resources, staff, and programs instead of funding law enforcement officers who claim to act as counselors.

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