Zero Tolerance Policy in Schools

Posted by Dr. Scott Henggeler

Jun 10, 2015 9:00:00 AM

This is a true story. The name has been changed.

Little T had minor scrapes with authorities throughout his adolescence—some alcohol and drug-related, others more aggressive in nature. Toward the end of his junior year, Little T and two of his classmates broke into their high school in the middle of the night. The damage they racked was so extensive that school administrators were forced to broadcast a 5 am emergency cancellation of school to all students and personnel. The school was closed for 2 days for cleanup, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars, disrupting the education of hundreds of students, and inconveniencing hundreds of families.

In a supposed effort to “get tough” on youth misbehavior, schools in many communities have adopted zero-tolerance policies. These policies often function to exclude youth that we serve in MST programs and to block one of their few viable paths to future social and economic security. For example, former MST clients have been expelled for shooting spitballs (assault) and for smart-mouthing principals. The teens were sent home for the rest of the year, where they, at best, received 2-3 hours of home-based instruction. As many of these youth live in single-parent families, where that parent is working during the day, and high crime neighborhoods, they are essentially removed from a relatively prosocial context (school) to one that is largely conducive to antisocial behavior (lots of free time, available criminal subculture, restricted adult supervision). While the school might benefit in the short term by removing a source of disruption, this advantage is at a high cost to the youth (the many lifelong deleterious outcomes associated with school dropout and low educational achievement), his or her family (increased stress), and the community (the increased likelihood that the youth will become a financial burden rather than a taxpaying citizen).

When zero-tolerance policies make sense

Little T attended a school that had a zero-tolerance policy—for dropouts. The school board, school superintendent, high school principal, assistant principals, guidance counselors, and teachers aimed explicitly and publicly for a zero percent high school dropout rate. Much as MST therapists aim to understand the “fit” of identified problems and to leverage the strengths of multiple systems to attenuate those problems, the school system in Little T’s town was committed to finding and implementing an individualized solution to all students at risk for dropout. The school’s aim was to hold Little T accountable for his actions, but in a way that did not undermine his future or the community’s values.

The school viewed Little T as a valuable individual who needed to be better integrated into the community, not one to be excluded. Despite the serious law violations and his history of other infractions, school administrators deemphasized criminal justice responses and implemented interventions that emphasized restitution and rehabilitation. Though 17 years of age, he was not remanded to adult court. Little T was suspended for the final two weeks of school his junior year but was also given an achievable path for completing his high school education. His teachers provided the support and encouragement needed for Little T to finish his current coursework and advance to his senior year. He was assigned 100 hours of community service and completed double that amount. In addition, Little T worked with the school maintenance staff throughout the summer. Debt paid, Little T had an outstanding senior year, earning varsity letters in two sports, one of which was completely new to him, and graduating on time with his class.

For the MST therapist struggling to find supportive teachers and school administrators to collaborate with their clinical efforts, Little T’s school must seem like the answer to a prayer. This public school exists in an economically diverse community in which adult heroin addiction, drug abuse, and child neglect are not uncommon. The political leadership in the town and the administrative leadership in the school, however, are committed to a zero-tolerance of the good kind—inclusion of all our citizens—and they back this commitment up with time, work, and resources. The task of the MST therapist struggling with school-related interventions is to identify the one, two, three or more school personnel who share these values even though working in a system that might emphasize exclusion.

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Topics: School Safety