Zero tolerance policy may not have the desired effect in schools, a new study has revealed.
According to two Michigan State University researchers, strategies adopted by schools that mandate automatic punishment for weapons, drugs, profanity and various forms of disruptive behaviour are failing to make students feel safe.
The policy, established in the mid-1990s to address gun violence in schools, has become plagued by inconsistent enforcement and inadequate security, the study points out.
Laura McNeal, assistant professor of teacher education and lead researcher, said: "Zero tolerance policy represents what happens when there is a disconnect between law on the books and law in action," said McNeal, who has a law degree. "We need to reform existing policies such as zero tolerance to ensure every child receives a high-quality education in a safe and supportive learning environment."
For the study, McNeal and Christopher Dunbar Jr., associate professor of educational administration, interviewed and collected data from above-average students at 15 urban high schools in the Midwest.
While much has been written about students punished under zero tolerance, this study is one of the first to bring in the voices of well-behaved students, the researchers said.
Zero tolerance is a result of a 1994 federal law that requires all states receiving federal money to require school districts to expel for at least one year any student found to have brought a weapon to school.
School districts across the nation installed zero-tolerance policies that sometimes went further - expelling students for cursing, defiant behavior and bringing over-the-counter medications, for examples.
McNeal said zero tolerance has been starkly criticized by the media, educators and parents for failing to improve school safety.
The students surveyed in this study said zero tolerance is rife with problems, including too few security guards; security guards who are underpaid, lazy or corrupt; nonworking metal detectors; and administrators who show favouritism.
The study has been published in the May issue of the journal Urban Education.