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Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

DOYLE: Zero tolerance for a bad disciplinary policy


When I was in eighth grade at St. Sebastian’s Catholic Grade School, I got in a “fight.” I use quotations because it was hardly a fight:  A kid wouldn’t give me back my new basketball at lunch, so I grabbed for it, he tried to punch me, and I tried to punch him back. It was quickly broken up. I had never been in trouble before then, at least not the trouble that lands you in the principal’s office. Our punishment? We had to cut ribbons off of a fence during recess.

That was it.

Our principal realized it wasn’t a regular occurrence, and he had the flexibility and wherewithal to deal with it situationally, based on our past histories and attitudes.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice jointly released a 35-page document titled “Guiding Principles:  A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline.” As a result of the report, the Obama administration suggested school districts end “zero tolerance” policies – ones that have strict, uniform punishments for certain misbehavior or rule-breaking.

The underlying problem with zero tolerance policies is that they fail to account for less serious circumstances.

In Milwaukee, for instance, Alexander Hamilton High School, a public high school on the north side, has a “Zero Tolerance” tardy policy. Any student that reports to class after the bell is expected to go to the tardy room. “No Exceptions,” the policy states in bold lettering. Upon a second tardy, an in-school suspension is administered and “students will not be allowed in class until the in-school suspension has been completed.”

Policies such as this don’t make sense. ‘You’ve missed some class, so now lets make you miss more.’

While the philosophy behind zero tolerance policies, which became popular in the early 1990s, assumes strict punishments will deter unwanted behavior, they are misguided and misdirected.

Instead, these policies place draconian punishments on students most in need of attention and help. They are short-term solutions for long-term problems. In many cases, students who face suspensions or expulsions for tardiness, fights, drugs and other rule violations feed from zero tolerance policy schools into the criminal justice system, and not as police or lawyers.

In contrast to zero tolerance policies, restorative justice policies seek to reconcile victims with offenders. In the past, Marquette University Law School’s Restorative Justice Initiative worked with Milwaukee Public Schools to reconcile offenders with those whom they hurt.

Paul Dedinsky, a former adjunct professor at Marquette’s law school and a current Milwaukee assistant district attorney, worked with MPS and the Restorative Justice Initiative. His dissertation focused on discipline in schools, specifically MPS, and the restorative justice process.

“While many promising pockets of schools within MPS – sensing the true nature of the problem of utilizing suspensions as a first, rather than a last resort – successfully adopted restorative approaches, strategies and practices, there is still much work to be done,” Dedinsky said in an email.

Though Dedinsky’s dissertation relies on data from 2008, many of the problems persist. While MPS did not have a higher rate of expulsion than most other urban public school systems, it did have a similar number of suspensions as the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is more than eight times the size of MPS.

“Suspensions can be dangerous,” Dedinsky said. “Instead of being in a classroom, that youth is now in the community, sometimes with specious adult supervision. The damage to academic achievement cannot be underestimated. I met students suspended in excess of 20 times in a given school year. That means these students missed 140 classes that school year just due to suspensions.”

In the end, I am left to wonder what would have happened had I gone to a school with a zero tolerance policy and been in my “fight.”

While I probably would not have become some hardened felon, prison tattoos and all, there is a very real possibility I would have, at the very least, had a run in with the police, the criminal justice system or a suspension. That is the inherent problem with zero tolerance policies: there is no consideration given to those who may not deserve such a harsh punishment.

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