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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Zero tolerance has zero benefits

We all want our schools to be safe for both kids and teachers. The question is, how do you achieve that goal? In an effort to make schools safer, many regions have adopted ‘zero tolerance’ policies that require automatic suspension no matter the circumstances of the transgression. Is this a good idea? According to my own common sense, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. However, scientists should never trust common sense. We insist on evidence. Luckily, Dewey Cornell of the University of Virginia, Korrie Allen of Eastern Virginia Medical School and Xitao Fan from the University of Macau have provided some.

The researchers compared two different strategies for dealing with threats of violence. For one group of kids, school officials followed the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines. According to these guidelines, administrators lead a team of adults, including parents and at least one school psychologist, through a series of interviews with the child who had made the threat. Based on their findings, the team could consider the matter resolved right then or proceed with further action, including suspension.

Kids in the second group were simply suspended from school as per the zero tolerance rules.

The kids in the first group were significantly less likely to be referred for subsequent offenses. They were more likely to receive mental health counseling. Their classmates reported less overall bullying. Parents were more involved. And perhaps most important, none of the original threats that had set the whole process in motion were carried out.

There is plenty of room for improvement in how schools handle threats of violence. Different training programs for teachers and administrators may yield different results. The community at large can be included to a greater or lesser extent.  However, one thing seems clear. If the goal is to help kids safely negotiate their way through school (and by extension, through later life) rather than simply to punish or retaliate, incidents must be evaluated on a case by case basis. Zero tolerance has no place in such a system.