I Have Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance Discipline Policies
January 17, 2018

Wayne D’Orio is in The Atlantic, examining the challenges that schools face when they migrate away from “zero tolerance” discipline policies:

During the 1990s, amid rising fears of youth violence, many districts adopted zero-tolerance policies mandating suspensions for certain offenses, including relatively minor infractions such as shoving other students or cursing. Suspension rates nearly doubled between 1973 and 2006. Racial disparities in school discipline, meanwhile, are stark: Black students are roughly four times as likely to be suspended as white students … The pendulum started to swing back in 2014 when the Obama administration issued a 7,500-word letter warning schools against racial discrimination in discipline … the federal push spurred more schools to revamp their disciplinary procedures. So, too, did the growing body of evidence documenting the harm associated with pulling students out of school …

D‘Orio’s examination is measured. He elucidates the practices of a single school that has embraced the eschewal of zero-tolerance, but he does not sugarcoat the complexity of radical shifts in disciplinary code. Nor does he ignore the fact that schools sometimes skirt new rules by “sending kids home for the day” without using the word “suspension.”

Mike Petrilli of Education Next is less sanguine and thinks that the efforts to curb racial disparities in suspensions are misguided:

… in response to findings that African American students were three times as likely to be suspended as white students, the Obama Administration sent a lengthy “Dear Colleague” letter to school districts nationwide … It’s this use of disparate impact analysis—and the threat of federal investigations based on discipline disparities alone—that gives many of us on the right such pause, and is why we believe the current administration should rescind or revise the 2014 letter … [disparate impact] is not a good fit for the complicated issue of school discipline. Here, a great deal of the racial disparities actually stem from differences in actual student behavior, which in turn is related to differences in socioeconomic circumstances.

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This is wrong in so many ways.

I’m going to spend the rest of this post explaining why.

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First, let’s address the elephant in the room: if we are ever going to have a just society, we cannot attribute misbehavior to a student’s racial background. That’s exactly what Petrilli does, however, a sentiment captured in the last sentence in the excerpt above. He issues some caveats throughout the piece, but the overall argument is that policymakers and educators should design disciplinary policies around the idea that black children are more likely to misbehave.

Let’s pause here for a second. The author. Is suggesting. That we ASSUME. That black children will misbehave more.

I’m pissed off – but not surprised – to see someone make this statement so blatantly. We all suspect that a wide range of policymakers, educators, and labor officials share these noxious beliefs, but it’s rare to see them floated as if they represent innocuous scientific precepts, and not the underpinnings of racial discrimination.

We’re talking about the lives of children here, and absolutely nobody who influences those lives should be insisting that we “assume” that they are less valuable.

Which leads me to my second point: the use of science to justify racist policymaking is an old phenomenon in this country, particularly among political conservatives. From William F. Buckley to his contemporaries, one can conjure a consistent pattern of deploying prejudiced tropes, served with a soupçon of pseudoscience as justification.

“It doesn’t matter what you believe,” they’ll say, “I’m only interested in the objective truth.”

A casual perusal of Petrilli’s article suggests its place in this particular pattern. There are scatter plots! A regression line! Such things are supposed to indicate academic rigor, sincerity, and seriousness.

Spoiler alert: they don’t.

Let’s deal with the most obvious methodological problem: after saying that we cannot believe teacher-reported misbehavior data because there’s no way to assess its validity, Petrilli uses self-reported student data to make his point. That’s like saying, “We cannot solve the problem of who stole the cookies from the cookie jar by asking mom; in my study we solve that problem by asking the kids.”

The regression is more complicated to unpack. Their basic argument is that the gap in suspension data for black children tracks the gap in poverty between black children and white children. First of all, the correlation isn’t terribly strong (R^2=0.34). Weak correlation is the norm for most independent variables in education policy, but in this particular case, where the author is using the correlation to justify racial discrimination, the bar should be much higher. I’m also skeptical that the variables they’ve chosen are appropriate to the question at hand.

That said, the biggest problem with this analysis is that – even if the correlation were impenetrably strong – it doesn’t tell us anything. This chart is about disparate suspensions, not disparate behavior. The regression measures the prevalence of an output (suspensions) to make a judgment about the presence of an input (misbehavior). And, remember, the author himself said, “It’s virtually impossible for researchers to know because they can’t ‘see’ student misbehavior, only records of disciplinary actions …”

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School discipline is a rare phenomenon within education policy, in that the deployment of new practices can have immediate personal consequences for children and their families. A child who is suspended is less likely to graduate and more likely to struggle to participate in both civic life and the economy. Zero-tolerance polices have dubious impact on school safety, but huge consequences for the children who live with their imperiousness.

The fact that the deployment of zero-tolerance has led to such disproportionate punishment of black children means that it is impossible to decouple its implementation from broader patterns of institutional racism. Just as it is impossible to identify a link between zero-tolerance policing and crime statistics, we should be skeptical of anyone who uses of zero-tolerance discipline policies to gin up fears about school safety. The conservative National Review recently printed a mea culpa about having defended the racist “stop and frisk” practices deployed by police departments in the last generation. That policy – which relied on the “assumption” that individuals of certain racial backgrounds were more likely to commit crimes – was built on a racist precept and led to racist outcomes. In the near future, I hope to see conservatives in the education policy sector issuing a similar mea culpa about zero-tolerance discipline policies. In the meantime, we should be vigilant that the repugnant underpinnings of these ideas stay as far as possible from our classrooms and children.

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