Millions of students are being suspended or expelled -- including preschoolers! -- and administrators may not always have a choice.

Kids in row
Credit: Erin Patrice O'Brien

By the time Tiffanie Huntley arrived at her son Bryan's school, the police were already there. She remembers how tiny and bewildered the 5-year-old looked sitting in a big chair surrounded by grown-ups.

The suburban Denver mom of six had gotten a phone call that morning from the principal saying that she and her husband, Kent, needed to come quickly: Their kindergartner had brought a weapon to school.

"A what?" Huntley thought to herself. "That's not possible."

But it was true -- sort of. Bryan had found a mini Swiss Army knife in the family's camping gear and tucked it into his front pocket. His fingers weren't even strong enough to pry open the 1-inch blade. But when he showed the knife to some friends at Vanderhoof Elementary, a teacher spotted it and whisked him to the principal, Tria Dassler, who then phoned the police. When Bryan's parents asked Dassler why such a drastic step had been necessary, she explained that it was a requirement. (Lynn Setzer, a spokeswoman for the Jefferson County school district, confirmed that Dassler had correctly followed the district's policy, which mandates that police must be contacted for any weapons possession, regardless of a child's age or the circumstances). Huntley says the principal suspended Bryan for the rest of the day and suggested he should have known better. "But he didn't know better," she says, still tearful at the memory three years later. "He was 5."

What may sound like an isolated incident caused by an irrational overreaction is, in fact, a common occurrence today. An estimated 94 percent of public schools have a zero-tolerance policy in place to address not just weapons possession but also drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Many districts have expanded the mandatory predetermined punishments to include behavioral infractions, which are acted upon swiftly and severely, even for kindergartners. These can range from an in-school suspension (in which a child learns separately from other students), to an out-of-school suspension, to automatic expulsion for a year.

The consequences of this policy have been disruptive to the learning process, to say the least. Children of all ages are being suspended in staggering numbers, often for offenses that might have been resolved by a parent conference or detention. The Civil Rights Project, a research organization at UCLA, reports that 3.3 million kids in grades K-12 are suspended and 102,000 are expelled each year.

But recently, the idea of zero tolerance has been coming under widespread attack. Parents whose kids were penalized worry how a policy that removes them from the classroom will impact their learning. Child-development experts argue that the inflexible policies should be eliminated or at least softened given the fact that kids will be, well, kids, and they often make mistakes due to ignorance or immaturity that may not warrant serious punishment. Children's advocates emphasize that kids who have been suspended tend to develop a negative attitude toward school and are at increased risk for dropping out. So even if a punishment is short-term, the impact on a young kid's future can be devastating. "Zero-tolerance school-discipline approaches have gone way beyond where they started, as principals and teachers have used them to punish nonviolent behaviors that don't pose any threat to students," says Patti Hassler, vice president of communications and outreach for the nonprofit Children's Defense Fund.

Juvenile Justice

No single event sparked what eventually evolved into zero tolerance in schools. The catchphrase likely grew out of the swift and automatic punishment for drug offenders established in the late 1980s. Schools began to adopt a similar philosophy toward discipline as educators and communities became increasingly concerned about violence. Then, with the passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which requires public schools to expel any student caught with a firearm, it became national policy. Over time, many districts and individual schools have broadened their zero-tolerance polices to include minor infractions, such as disruptive behavior and persistent tardiness. In California, there were 700,000 K-12 suspensions during the 2010-11 school year (the most recent data available). Of those, 42 percent of the infractions fell under the murky label of "willful defiance," such as failing to complete homework and refusing to take off a hat or coat when asked, notes Roger Dickinson, a Sacramento assemblyman who is fighting to revamp zero-tolerance policies. One study found that 95 percent of all out-of-school suspensions were for nonviolent, minor disruptions such as tardiness or disrespect.

Zero tolerance also skirts our nation's long-standing legal tradition of due process. "It punishes children without assessing their intent or the circumstances surrounding an offense," says Robert Schwartz, former chair of the American Bar Association's Commission on Youth at Risk. One recent example: An 8-year-old boy who made a gun signal with his thumb and index finger was suspended in Harmony, Florida, last fall -- even though he was playing an innocent game of cops and robbers in the schoolyard with friends.

Girl with text
Credit: Erin Patrice O'Brien

Vulnerable Kids

There is little consistency in how zero-tolerance policies are applied from school to school, notes Daniel Losen, director of the nonprofit Center for Civil Rights Remedies. He also points out the bias in enforcement: African-American students are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In response to this disparity, the DOE issued new guidelines in January to help public-school administrators "discipline in a manner that does not discriminate on the basis of race." Among its recommendations: better staff training, greater family involvement, and the elimination of school suspensions and expulsions except as a last resort.

Also troubling is the fact that preschoolers are being taken out of the classroom at three times the rate of kids in grades K-12, for offenses such as classroom disruption and willful disobedience, according to Yale University research. "There is no discernible wisdom to zero tolerance being applied to young kids," says Walter Gilliam, Ph.D., director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, at the Yale School of Medicine.

The American Psychological Association has found no evidence that the discipline code improves behavior, especially among younger students. "Preschoolers often don't understand what they've done wrong and aren't yet capable of making the connection between the misbehavior and the punishment," says Cecil Reynolds, Ph.D., emeritus professor of educational psychology at Texas A&M University, in College Station.

Children with behavioral disorders have also been suspended in disproportionate numbers. D'Avonte Meadows, a now 9-year-old from Aurora, Colorado, who happens to be African-American, is classified as "special needs" because he has difficulty controlling his emotions and struggles socially. He loves to sing and dance, and that's what got him into trouble in 2012. His mom, Stephanie Meadows, isn't sure where her then first-grader learned the LMFAO song "Sexy and I Know It," but the tune was everywhere, from a popular candy commercial to a Sesame Street parody version called "I'm Elmo and I Know It." When her little boy sang it several times to a girl at his school, he was suspended for three days.

"I'm not excusing my son's behavior," says Meadows. But she's furious that the school classified the incident as sexual harassment. She claims D'Avonte wasn't truly aware of what "sexy" meant (following the incident, she sat him down for a birds-and-bees talk before tackling the issue of sexual boundaries). According to Meadows, the school has since removed "sexual" from the harassment classification, and she consulted with the NAACP to try to wipe the entire incident from his permanent record. Meadows doubts race played a role in the suspension. Still, she believes D'Avonte was discriminated against. "Kids like him are looked at more closely for everything they do," she says. (Aurora Public Schools declined to discuss the case, citing its responsibility to keep student matters private.)

Hassler, of the Children's Defense Fund, worries that lasting damage is being done to kids who are pushed out of school. "If you're suspended, you come back and have fallen behind in class. You become frustrated and feel alienated from school," she says.

Still, not everyone thinks zero tolerance is a bad idea. According to a survey conducted by Public Agenda with support from Common Good (both nonprofits), 76 percent of teachers believe that students with special needs who misbehave are treated too lightly, even when their actions have nothing to do with their disability. And some parents whose kids have been affected by disruptive classroom behavior agree. Count John Goldberg among them. The dad, from central California, says his daughter's first-grade learning was impeded by the actions of a classmate who interrupted constantly and acted aggressively on a regular basis. When Goldberg took his concerns to the principal, he was told the school was aware of the problem. No action was taken. "If you have one kid interfering with everyone else's education, something needs to be done," he says.

Boy with text
Credit: Erin Patrice O'Brien

Focus On Flexibility

One alternative approach to school discipline that has shown early promise is known as restorative justice. Instead of harshly punishing a rule-breaking child, the emphasis is on first repairing the damage using milder measures such as role-playing, peer mediation, written apologies, and loss of privileges. Schools in Florida's Duval County that implemented this policy reduced suspensions by more than

50 percent during the 2011-12 year.

Another action plan, school-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), is intended to be a prevention strategy. The idea, which has been adopted by more than 16,000 schools nationwide, is to set clear expectations for behavior from the start and to hold training events for students and staff throughout the year. A four-year study published in Pediatrics found that PBIS offers a promising approach to reducing problems and promoting adjustment among elementary-school children.

Fueled in part by such evidence, legislators and school boards in select areas have started to rethink the one-size-fits-all approach of zero tolerance that remains the rule in most places. In 2010, Connecticut declared that suspensions should be served in school whenever possible. Delaware's Christina School District now permits elementary-school principals to factor in a child's age and the context of the offense in determining a consequence. Broward County, Florida, one of the nation's largest school districts, recently approved a major discipline-policy overhaul, including the elimination of the term "zero tolerance." And Ohio state senator Charleta Tavares is pushing a bill to ban mandatory consequences for misbehavior in Ohio schools.

"There was a need for greater flexibility," says Wendy Lapham, a spokesperson for the Christina School District. "We need to look at the whole child and try to keep him or her in school." Since revamping the policy two years ago, suspensions in her district have fallen by one third.

Inflexible school-discipline policies aren't going to disappear anytime soon. But Yale's Dr. Gilliam sees hopeful signs of progress. While he acknowledges that schools need to maintain order to be effective, he argues that common sense and a reasonable middle ground had been missing from the equation. "If 'zero tolerance' is replaced with 'thoughtful tolerance,' that would be a step in the right direction," he says.

How to Counter a Suspension

Although every school, every principal, and every kid's offense is different, if your child is about to be removed from school, this blueprint will help.

It's a good idea to take action ASAP; ask to meet with the principal the same day if possible (it's easier to reverse a suspension before it begins), and keep track of all correspondence. Try to get the facts about the incident before you walk in the door, including listening carefully to your child. But view the discussion as collaborative rather than confrontational. Listen to the school's take on what happened. Rather than rebutting your child's responsibility for his actions, discuss ways to prevent future problems and ask about alternative punishments that won't interrupt his learning. At the least, inquire about how he'll be given missed assignments. You can always consult a lawyer down the road, but the best approach in most situations is to focus on building a positive working relationship with the principal and teacher while helping your child stay in school in the future.

Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Parents magazine.

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