Zero tolerance reflects zero intelligence when it comes to student discipline. Despite more than a decade of research showing that zero-tolerance policies are not effective for handling misbehavior, too many educators still embrace stringent suspensions and expulsions in response to students who break school rules.
The absurdity of zero tolerance is compounded when educators invite law enforcement—also commonly known as school resource officers (SROs)—to roam hallways under the guise of protecting students from harm. Instead, they often use their policing powers to wrongly criminalize minor disruptive behaviors. What’s even more disturbing is that such policies disproportionately affect students of color.
In fact, a study released last month by researchers at the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the National Black Women’s Justice Institute takes a more in-depth look at the interactions between girls of color and SROs. According to the study’s analysis of 2013-14 data from the U.S. Department of Education, black girls are nearly three times more likely to be referred to law enforcement than white girls, and almost four times more likely to be arrested.
After interviewing SROs and girls of color, the researchers found that despite the evidence of disproportionate discipline, there is little training provided to SROs to help them understand how to relate to girls of color. Educators often place SROs in a disciplinary role rather than involving them when the need arises around delinquent conduct. SROs lack the cultural competence, trauma-informed skills, gender-responsive approaches, and knowledge of community-based resources needed to help improve school climate for girls of color.
Through my work as a judge for a juvenile court in Clayton County, Ga., I have seen that this inappropriate use of law enforcement in schools does not improve safety, but actually compromises students’ futures. My county’s school system began using SROs in 1995, and our referrals to the court increased 1,200 percent by 2003. By collecting data on school arrests, we discovered that our African-American students—male and female—were 12 times more likely to be arrested than our white students.
In addition, our school district’s graduation rate dropped and juvenile crime rates spiked. Research suggests that arresting students for minor offenses significantly increases the likelihood that they will drop out of school. School is one of the strongest buffers against delinquency, and when kids are pushed out, they do not always spend their time wisely.
I am worried that it is only a matter of time before a school superintendent will have to explain why a school resource officer was at the juvenile court booking a student for a school fight or disorderly conduct at the moment an active shooter entered a school building.
I have seen that this inappropriate use of law enforcement in schools does not improve safety, but actually compromises students' futures."
So how do we solve this problem?
As an early proponent for alternatives to harsh discipline policies, I know this work is complicated, and I don’t pretend to have all of the answers. But the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the National Black Women’s Justice Institute study’s recommendations should be of note to every school and SRO who work with students of color.
First, school systems and law enforcement must outline the proper roles and responsibilities of SROs using more formal terms, such as school-justice partnership agreements. My district’s school and law-enforcement systems more than a decade ago created one of the first partnerships using an accountability model that established disciplinary guidelines for SROs. The model uses a memorandum of understanding and a “conflict avoidance” algorithm to reduce referrals to the court and introduce restorative practices.
This guides educators and SROs in developing operating procedures that merit their intervention. The guidance prohibits SROs from becoming disciplinarians, and instead encourages them to take action only for serious crimes involving weapons.
Want to learn more about how school discipline policies affect girls of color? Researchers Rebecca Epstein of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and Monique W. Morris of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute undertook a two-year project to interview girls of color and school resource officers about their interactions.
Their findings, released in a report last month, underscore a need for schools to improve discipline policies and training for SROs, putting girls’ experiences at the center of this work. See their full list of policy recommendations and school-based solutions.
Second, SROs must understand the adolescent brain. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down life sentences without parole and the death penalty for juveniles (in Miller v. Alabama and Roper v. Simmons, respectively), the court cited research in both rulings to show that the part of the brain that translates emotion into logic is not fully developed until age 25. Despite teenagers’ intellectual and creative activity, they are prone to risk-taking behaviors and poor judgment.
When adults respond by overreacting with harsh punishments, they end up aggravating the circumstances—which can result in a student repeating the same offense. To avoid this result, educators and SROs should employ positive alternatives that address the behavior’s cause instead of punishing the symptom.
For example, in my home state of Georgia, some schools use the research-based Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports framework. The schools that use this model have experienced a significant reduction in disciplinary referrals and out-of-school suspensions and increases in graduation rates by as much as 14 percent in some counties. After more than a decade, our students of color are as likely to be referred to court as white students on the same offense. Overall, school referrals to the court have declined by 91 percent since 2003.
Third, the study recommends trauma-informed approaches to discipline. In my county, we created a nonprofit to provide chronically disruptive students with trauma-informed supports. When students suffer from trauma, their disruptive behavior becomes their language. Treatments for disruptive behaviors should attack the underlying causes of that behavior.
It is not enough for schools to take steps to improve the role of SROs. Local policymakers who are close to the juvenile-justice system, including judges, must step up to the plate if we are ever to create fairer law systems for all students.