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Zero tolerance questioned by MSU researchers

May 18, 2010

Zero tolerance policies against violence used by schools across the Midwest are inadequate and unfair, according to a study conducted by MSU researchers.

The policies are sets of rules developed to deal with a growing number of violent behaviors of students, said Christopher Dunbar Jr., a researcher and associate professor of educational administration at MSU.

A number of the policies require security officials, administrators and staff take “zero tolerance” approaches in punishing students that carry weapons of any sort, or cause any event that poses a threat in classrooms.

The policies typically require automatic suspension and withdrawal of a student from a school district for at least one year as a consequence, although schools across America enforce the policy differently, researchers said.

Dunbar said actions schools are taking simply are not working, causing students to say they don’t feel safe in school, Dunbar said. Dunbar conducted his research through one-on-one interviews with Midwestern high school students at a summer program at MSU. The negative response from students toward zero tolerance policies was surprising, he said.

“The students don’t think it’s working,” Dunbar said. “They walked through metal detectors that didn’t work. Security was not trained to be security, wire detector wands didn’t work (and) some security guards even befriended students who were doing illicit things.”

Sharif M. Shakrani, a professor in the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education at MSU, said the study mirrors what is occurring at high schools nationally, especially in urban areas.

“The study is a reflection of what is going on in high schools, that many students feel unsafe and insecure in high schools, especially in urban areas,” Shakrani said.

In addressing these problems facing educators, discretion is key, Dunbar said.

“Discretion is in the eye of the beholder. It leaves room for a district to be particularly hard on students, or boys will be boys, as opposed to an urban environment where kids are sent home,” Dunbar said, in explaining the differences between how districts treat students.

Dunbar also said there is a need for reform in discretion from disciplinarians.

“It is difficult because there is room for discretion in the current zero toleration policies that exist, but the discretion is unfairly applied,” he said.

Some suggested it is more a matter of revising zero tolerance policies than simply replacing security guards or administrators. Robert Higgins, a safe schools consultant at the Michigan Department of Education said one approach is reforming punishments for violating zero tolerance policies to treat each individual case as more customized.

Being expelled for an entire year out of the Michigan public schools for a mistake that a student made is inconvenient and makes it difficult for students to get back on track a year later to graduate, Higgins said.

“We would like to see (the policy) modified,” Higgins said. “Catching some students who made a mistake then kicked out for a whole year, chances of graduating after a year are slim to none.”

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