The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 29, 2014

Zero-tolerance nonsense ineffective, damaging

Why it matters: Schools need to scrap zero-tolerance policies and use effective alternatives.

The Mankato Free Press

---- — The expulsion of a young woman described as a “model student” from United South Central High School again highlights the intolerable injustice of zero-tolerance policies in schools.

Last week, the USC School Board in Wells voted unanimously to accept Supt. Jerry Jensen’s recommendation that junior Alyssa Drescher be expelled through the end of the school year after a pocket knife was found in her purse in a locker during a school-wide drug search.

Drescher had used the knife while helping her boyfriend on the farm and had forgotten it was in her purse. Those who testified, including school officials, describe Drescher as an exceptional student and person. Drescher and her family worry the expulsion will hurt her chances of attending college.

There is scant evidence that zero-tolerance policies reduce violence. Those bent on doing harm will obviously disregard the rules.

And there is a wealth of evidence that the policies cause all sorts of harm. Students who are expelled are more likely to graduate late, drop out, and be expelled again. And the policies tend to disproportionately offer harsher punishment to students of color and have greater negative impact on students with disabilities.

The National Education Association, the National Association of School Psychologists and the Obama administration have all highlighted the ineffectiveness and unfairness of zero tolerance policies and recommend alternatives that are more effective.

A better way to improve safety and benefit kids who really need help is to implement robust programs that target individualized help to at-risk students.

Those efforts typically include engaging at-risk students daily or weekly in exercises to build social and other skills.

Alternatives also include ensuring school staff enforce safety rules with consistent discipline.

Everyone wants safe schools. The allure of zero tolerance policies is that they are simple — bring a pocket knife or sharp file to school, innocently or not, and you’re out. But easy actions aren’t effective.

And, as we saw last week, they can cause potentially devastating damage to a young person’s life.