“Zero tolerance” discipline policies enforced in U.S. schools are backfiring by promoting misbehavior and making students feel more anxious, the American Psychological Association (APA) said yesterday. USA Today said the group called for more flexibility and common sense in applying the policies, reserving zero tolerance for the most serious threats. Zero-tolerance policies spread in the 1990s as a tool to fight drug use and violence.
Schools often suspend or expel students for having weapons or drugs. Verbal threats, fighting, or sexual harassment also can get kids booted. “The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach isn’t working. Bringing aspirin to school is not the same as bringing cocaine. A plastic knife isn’t the same as a handgun,” says educational psychologist Cecil Reynolds of Texas A&M University. Kids feel less safe and perform worse academically in schools with high suspension or expulsion rates, even taking into account student income levels, the APA says. There are signs zero-tolerance policies are steering more teens into the juvenile justice system, says Russell Skiba, an Indiana University educational psychologist. “Things that used to be handled by principals land kids in juvenile detention,” he says. The report says minorities are expelled more often than whites for comparable offenses.