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Discipline policy review: Colorado’s task force on zero-tolerance

August 9, 2011

The debate over zero-tolerance discipline policies is taking shape across the nation. With more than 75% of schools across the nation having such policies that provide little flexibility in meting out disciplinary action for offenses ranging from fighting to weapon possession, schools and districts will likely be faced with hefty task of assessing their impact, and some will choose more mediated approaches to discipline.  Last week, Education Week reported that a Colorado task force was convened to discuss the impact of zero tolerance policies on student outcomes, especially minority students.  As the evidence mounts that these policies negatively impact graduation rates, college entrance rates, employment, and military service, the call for a more common-sense approach to ensuring school safety and student success is gaining momentum.

Now, the US Departments of Justice and Education are joining the effort to stop the “school to prison pipeline” and the disproportionate effect of zero-tolerance policies on minorities.  Responding to a report from the Council of State Governments Justice Centerthat found more than half of students in Texas are suspended at least once between 7th and 12th grades,  the Departments announced the new Supportive School Discipline Initiative tasked to, “…make certain that school discipline policies are enforced fairly and do not become obstacles to future growth, progress, and achievement,” Attorney General Eric Holder said.  The Departments are collaborating with non-profit and philanthropic organizations to build consensus at the federal, state, and local levels,review the research and data, develop guidance in alignment with civil rights laws that promotes positive disciplinary options that keep students in school and lead to improved school climate, and promote promising policies and practices among state judicial and education agencies. The next meeting will be in October, and we will keep you abreast of their progress.

School and district leaders should evaluate current zero-tolerance discipline policies; review data on their impact on student drop-out, graduation, and college entrance rates; convene cross-agency workgroups on school safety and zero-tolerance policies; and explore alternatives such as school-wide prevention and intervention programs,alternative to suspension programs, and other evidence-based programs in preparation for mandated changes to school discipline policies.

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