Editorial: Zero-tolerance not a policy to pursue in schools

Schools across the country have adopted and abided by “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies that grant students who commit anything from acts of bullying and insubordination to minor infractions of school behavior codes the maximum punishment of either suspension or expulsion.

These wide-reaching policies have recently been a topic for review by school districts, a reappraisal that has been long overdue. Rehabilitating student behavior must be the focus of such disciplinary measures; using suspension and expulsion policies as a disciplinary measure is unacceptable in an environment that is meant to teach and foster young minds.

Studies have shown that suspending and expelling students does nothing beneficial for the student, but only improves the well-being of the school. While that is certainly important, schools have an obligation to provide students with a quality education that goes beyond what textbooks teach and exams evaluate. What is more, federal data issued by the U.S. Department of Education says minority students — namely black students and students with disabilities — were targeted for these extreme disciplinary actions.

In Allegheny County alone, more than 30,000 out-of-school suspensions were issued to public school students in kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2011-2012 school year. While Pittsburgh Public Schools reduced the number by about 30 percent between the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years, the number is still astounding.

Instead of using such policies as a first line of defense for unruly students, school districts should install guidance programs and counseling services to rehabilitate and teach students, rather than allowing them to go potentially unsupervised at home. Schools should also strive to instill a positive, friendly environment and coach teachers on how to address students who have acted out. These students have committed acts that are reprimandable, and they could commit worse if they aren’t taught how to carry themselves appropriately.

Students attend schools to obtain an education — one far more expansive than what is tested by standardized exams, statewide evaluations and even college admissions directors. Students have the right to learn skills that will help them to become better people and more well-rounded students in school. This should be at the forefront of educators’ minds when students act out. Zero-tolerance policies seem to have entered into a dangerous trend in which they are implemented far too frequently as a way to easily avoid actually teaching students what is right.

The task is difficult, especially in schools where a large number of students act out, but spending the time to counsel and guide these students can make all the difference for their futures.