Pa. Study Asks: Has ‘Zero Tolerance’ Gone Too Far?

By Evie Blad — November 14, 2013 2 min read
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Policies originally designed to keep guns out of schools have instead kept excessive numbers of Pennsylvania students out of their classrooms as educators applied the rules in an overly broad manner, says a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

And black students, Latino students, and students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended than their peers, says the Nov. 14 report, which is based on a statewide, district-by-district analysis of Pennsylvania data on suspensions, expulsions, and school referrals to police.

The state-specific snapshot mirrors other recent criticisms of the zero-tolerance policies, required by the federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1995. That law required states that receive federal funding to enact policies that mandated expulsion of students found to be possessing a weapon on campus. But in practice, the law’s reach extended beyond its original intentions as districts expanded the definition of “weapons” beyond firearms and removed students from the classroom for more minor, discretionary offenses, such as school uniform violations and talking back to adults, the report said. Education Week took a broader look at the shifting national discussion on student discipline in this January 2013 report.

“I understand the mentality that you’ve got to get the bad kids out of school so the good kids can learn, but when you actually look at who’s doing what in schools, it really doesn’t break down that cleanly or that simply,” report author Harold Jordan said in an interview.

Pennsylvania school leaders issued an average of 10.1 suspensions for every 100 students during the 2011-2012 school year, the report says. The York City School District, which had the highest suspension rate in the state that year, issued 91 suspensions for every 100 students, the report says. Some students may have been suspended multiple times.

In that same year, districts issued an average of 35.9 suspensions for every 100 black students, 17.5 suspensions for every 100 Latino students, and 4.7 suspensions for every 100 white students, the report says.

Researchers were unable to collect statewide data on the specific reasons for the suspensions, Jordan said. But district-level data from Philadelphia shows that students are being removed from the classroom for nonviolent offenses, he said. In that district, administrators listed “disruption” as the cause for 30 percent to 42 percent of all suspensions issued between 2003 and 2009.

The report also questions the role of police in schools, raising concerns about violations of students’ rights when officers work with school administrators to question students.

The report’s recommendations include a call for regular school-level and district-level reviews of suspension, expulsion, and police referral practices; policies that allow for the removal of students only when there is a real and immediate threat to safety; and the use of alternative strategies, such as positive behavioral interventions, to discipline students.

Advocates of changing student discipline policies have made their push as districts work to boost security and hire additional school resource officers in response to high-profile events of school violence. The release of the ACLU-Pennsylvania report came a day after three male students were shot outside a Pittsburgh high school.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.