School discipline expert George Bear, Ph.D., explains how discipline policies often allow little room for discretion.

Have you noticed how often we hear baffling news stories about students being suspended or expelled for minor infractions? Two six-year-olds are suspended for pretending their fingers are guns during recess play; a kindergartener is suspended for his “disruptive haircut”; a middle school student is suspended for bringing a butter knife to school to cut a pear.

As a parent, I can easily imagine my more “spontaneous” child starring in a future news story like one of these. Why do schools seem to throw discretion to the wind, doling out harsh penalties for seemingly harmless offences?

School administrators, and especially teachers, often have their hands tied when it comes to actions they can take in response to a student’s misbehavior. — Dr. George Bear, author and expert on school discipline

To learn more, I talked with George Bear, Ph.D., author of School Discipline and Self-Discipline: A Practical Guide to Promoting Prosocial Student Behavior and a national expert in positive school discipline. He explains that school discipline decisions, in many cases, are less about the misguided judgment of school administrators and more about inflexible school, district, or even state policies. “School administrators, and especially teachers,” says Dr. Bear, “often have their hands tied when it comes to actions they can take in response to a student’s misbehavior.” School staff are frequently beholden to strict “zero tolerance” discipline policies, despite having little or nothing to do with their creation.

Zero Tolerance Policies

“Zero tolerance” school policies proliferated in the 1990s, starting with the “Gun-Free School Act of 1994,” which made federal school funding conditional on each state’s adoption of legislation that would suspend any student found with a gun for at least a year. The philosophy behind zero tolerance was that by applying mandatory discipline—usually in the form of suspension or expulsion—students would be deterred from committing these and more serious offenses. However, reasonable safety policies soon spread beyond weapons to include alcohol and drugs, and then even further to encompass a host of nuisance offenses that occur in schools. 

“It is important to distinguish a pervasive and overly harsh zero tolerance approach,” explains Dr. Bear in his recent book, “. . . from more reasonable zero tolerance policies adopted by many schools pertaining to serious behavior problems, especially among older children and adolescents, that may truly harm the safety of others or seriously disrupt learning.” Those behaviors include bringing drugs or weapons to school, inflicting serious bodily injury on another student, or engaging in seriously disruptive behaviors resistant to evidence-based interventions.

Certain zero tolerance policies should be part of a school’s comprehensive discipline approach, Dr. Bear contends, because they can act as a deterrent—as long as students perceive them as fair and reasonable. Furthermore, certain policies—such as the 1994 Gun-Free School Act—are mandated by most, if not all states. However, writes Bear, “Zero tolerance policies and practices become problematic when they pertain to relatively minor acts of misbehavior, such as noncompliance, nonharmful physical aggression (e.g., shoving another), and teasing (not bullying), especially when the circumstances involved are not considered, such as the student’s history of misbehavior and context in which the behavior occurred.”

School Conduct Codes

When it comes to troublesome student behavior, how do schools create and adopt disciplinary codes? And then how do these codes become inflexible and punitive, as headlines so often indicate?

According to Dr. Bear, a small committee—which may include parents, teachers, administrators, and community representatives—is often chosen by the school district to create school codes of conduct. Many of the behaviors (and subsequent consequences) governed by these codes are guided largely by state law. Once in place, a teacher or administrator may face fines or dismissal for not following the established disciplinary procedures.

Dr. Bear provides an example from his home state of Delaware: “This year, my grandson, who is in kindergarten, was sent to the principal’s office for shoving another kindergartener.” The student, a good friend, stood with his arms extended in front of Dr. Bear’s grandson in the cafeteria, blocking his way. “My grandson shoved him, causing no harm. The cafeteria aide on duty sent them both to the office. Fortunately, neither was suspended.” 

Under Delaware law, Dr. Bear explains, such behavior falls under the category of “offensive touching,” which is defined as when a student “intentionally touches another person either with a member of his or her body or with any instrument, knowing that the person is thereby likely to cause offense or alarm to such other person.” When such behavior is observed—even among five year olds—it must be reported to the Delaware State Department of Education.  If not reported, the teacher faces a $250 fine ($500 for a second offense), and the school faces being identified as a “Persistently Dangerous School” under No Child Left Behind.

Local school districts’ codes of conduct vary in terms of what actions are to be taken in response to Delaware’s “offensive touching” law. “But in the District in which I live,” says Dr. Bear, “‘Detention and/or suspension of 1 to 2 days’ is required (with ‘police notification, when necessary’), as stated in the 95-page Code of Conduct (to be read and signed by every parent). So, I guess our grandson was lucky that he does not attend school in my District, or he could have been suspended and the police might have been notified—instead of a more reasonable phone call home. If he had shoved a teacher, a suspension of 1 to 5 days would have been required.”

Another nonsensical regulation in the District’s code of conduct, Dr. Bear expounds, is that any student in grades 6–12 who cuts class is to be suspended (or serve detention) for one to three days (two to five days if repeated). “So, if you don’t come to class your punishment is that you don’t have to come to class!”

Irrational policies can be found in states and school districts throughout the United States. What we often perceive in the news as absurd practices of zero tolerance, Dr. Bear asserts, are, in reality, often not discretionary on the part of a student’s teacher or even school principal, but instead are practices mandated by a representative committee of the school community and/or by state legislators.

Student and School Success

It is doubtlessly upsetting to both families and children when students are suspended or expelled for minor offenses. Parents and students may fear that the disciplinary action will appear on their permanent record, causing damage to their reputation and hurting their future prospects, whether college or career.

In addition, if we look at this issue from the lens of schools being successful in their mission to educate, graduate, and prepare students, research demonstrates that when kids are not at school, they are falling behind; suspension and expulsion are associated with dropout and involvement with the juvenile justice system, and they disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities. Although sometimes necessary and unavoidable, suspension and expulsion should be a last resort, as they hurt students’ and schools’ chance for success. 

Your Turn

Have you observed overly harsh discipline policies being used in the schools in your community or state? What do you think needs to be done to ensure that policies are appropriate and that schools have the discretion they need to make wise choices? Please leave your comments below.*

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