Zero-Tolerance Policies Doing More Harm Than Good Nearly one million teens become school dropouts each year, particularly minorities and males. Many students leave school after experiencing strict suspension policies. To learn why and what can produce better learning environments, host Michel Martin speaks with NPR's Claudio Sanchez, who's doing a new series on America's dropout crisis; Deborah Fowler, a consultant on a new Texas study about the effects of school discipline; and Emma Tai, coordinator of Voices of Youth in Chicago Education.

Zero-Tolerance Policies Doing More Harm Than Good

Zero-Tolerance Policies Doing More Harm Than Good

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Nearly one million teens become school dropouts each year, particularly minorities and males. Many students leave school after experiencing strict suspension policies. To learn why and what can produce better learning environments, host Michel Martin speaks with NPR's Claudio Sanchez, who's doing a new series on America's dropout crisis; Deborah Fowler, a consultant on a new Texas study about the effects of school discipline; and Emma Tai, coordinator of Voices of Youth in Chicago Education.

Nick Dunn, 16, gave up on school shortly after he lost his father. He lives with his mother, Deborah Gilmore Dunn, in rural South Carolina. Claudio Sanchez/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Claudio Sanchez/NPR

Nick Dunn, 16, gave up on school shortly after he lost his father. He lives with his mother, Deborah Gilmore Dunn, in rural South Carolina.

Claudio Sanchez/NPR

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Now we want to take a look at one of those problems that is hiding in plain sight: the number of kids who drop out of school every year before they receive a high school diploma. It turns out that nearly one million teenagers stop going to school every year, and the consequences of that decision can last for decades.

The unemployment rate for high school dropouts is nearly twice that of the general population. In some states, it's as high as 40 percent. And many of those dropouts are minorities and male students.

NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez has been examining this issue all week. But today, we want to hone in on just one of the reasons why many students drop out: discipline methods. We're going to talk about two different studies - one out of Texas and another out of Chicago - that point to discipline methods as a part of the problem.

But, first, Claudio Sanchez, welcome. Welcome back, I should say. Thank you for joining us.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Good to be here.

MARTIN: How did you get interested in this whole issue?

SANCHEZ: It actually came out of a lot of the reporting that NPR's been doing on the economy. Folks like people from Planet Money were finding this incredible data showing just how much people without a high school degree or a high school diploma or a GED are doing these days. And the numbers are astronomical. I mean, we're looking at enormous 45, 60 percent unemployment rates. We're looking at lost wages for even the people who do have jobs. These are people who can't get beyond a different, you know, a certain point in their careers because they don't have the credentials.

MARTIN: And for those who might think, well, that's too bad for them, but what does this have to do with me, what would you answer be?

SANCHEZ: The costs. The cost to taxpayers, the cost to states, the federal government are, again, astronomical. The estimates have been anywhere from 320 to $340 billion a year. That's in health, welfare, incarceration costs, certainly lost wages, lost income. And I think that this is at a time when we're all worried and, you know, so concerned about how our economy is doing. This is just an enormous loss of human potential and just the amount of money that's having to go through these - to these people.

MARTIN: Now, you're examining many different scenarios that lead to students dropping out. But is this a problem that's declining? I think many people - certainly people of my generation, our parents' generation - many people understood that they didn't think high school was very important. They thought they could earn a living wage working in a factory. Is the dropout rate increasing or decreasing?

SANCHEZ: It is decreasing. It's the consequences and the ripple effects that are more worrisome. And it is true that even two generations ago, Michel, the, you know, you could drop out of school and actually do OK.

MARTIN: So, why? Let's talk about the big question: Why? Why are kids dropping out? The kids who are dropping out, why?

SANCHEZ: Kids who drop out often are bored to death. These are not dumb kids. These are kids who may be behind in their basic skills in reading and math. As you were pointing out earlier, you know, these are kids who get in trouble very early. They come into middle school or high school with maybe even a history of absenteeism, truancy and kids who just, you know, are just considered troublemakers. And these are kids who earn a reputation for just not fitting in.

These are the kids who often repeat the grade, who, again, are behind in their reading skills, for example, and who teachers pretty much give up on. Teachers are under a lot of pressure to, on the one hand, maintain discipline, on the other, to help individualize the instruction to help these kids get along.

But it's often, you know, a task that's at odds. Certainly, teachers today who feel like, if I have one trouble maker in my school or in my class, he or she's going to disrupt everything. So I'm going to find another place to dump this kid. And they may not admit to that. But in many places - and Texas is probably the example that we hear about more often, because it's the one state that has been able to track some of these kids for a long period of time.

They're able to show that this discretion that local teachers and administrators have in deciding who they kick out of the classrooms, who gets into this pipeline that increasingly becomes more difficult for that child to get back into some kind of routine education, that that pipeline is very worrisome and that teachers really are incapable of doing anything about it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

We're talking about new findings about the extent of students dropping out of school. We're talking about why that matters. And that we're also - now we're going to focus on one of the reasons that we are finding that kids are dropping out of school, and that has to do with discipline policies. You just heard NPR's education correspondent Claudio Sanchez.

I want to turn now to Deborah Fowler. She was a consultant on a comprehensive study called "Breaking School's Rules." This study looked at a million students over six years to examine the effect of school discipline policies on students, immediately and over the long term. She's the deputy director of Texas Appleseed. That's a public interest law center that focuses on social justice issues. Deborah, thank you for joining us.


MARTIN: What are some of the things that you found out?

FOWLER: Well, I think one of the first things that surprised people when the results were released last week was just the shear volume of suspensions and expulsions in this study group. You said, you know, nearly a million students and it was all of those students between 7th and 12th grade during that six-year period. And 60 percent of those kids experienced at least one suspension or expulsion during the study period, during the time that they were in between 7th and 12th grade.

MARTIN: You found that 60 percent, as you said, 60 percent of students in the study were suspended at some point during their education. I think that's much, a much larger number than any people would expect. You found that African-Americans were 30 percent more likely to face disciplinary action often for a similar incident that would not lead to suspension...

FOWLER: (Unintelligible) .

MARTIN: ...for a white or Latino student.

FOWLER: That's precisely right.

EMMA TAI: Right.

MARTIN: Why do we think that is?

FOWLER: Well, you know, of course, you can't tell from the data. I have had in my role with Texas Appleseed as an advocate, I've had the opportunity to talk to a lot of students and parents, and students and parents are well aware of the unequal application of disciplinary policies. And they tell us that often what you see is a student who is labeled as a troublemaker by teachers early on and just is then sort of repeatedly expected by his teachers to get into trouble and so he ends up with, you know, subsequent (unintelligible) .

MARTIN: Well, you know, one of the findings and one of the issues that the report is examining is whether minor offenses are actually leading to expulsion. That you can understand if a student brings a gun to school.

FOWLER: That's right.

MARTIN: Most people would say let's get him or her out of here.

FOWLER: Yes. That's right.

MARTIN: But you're, it's small stuff. When you say small stuff what do you mean by that?

FOWLER: The things that we would expect kids to do in school. The things that kids did in school when we were in school. You know, talking back to the teacher, talking too much in class, not complying with the dress code, not the kind of behavior that really puts the safety of the...

MARTIN: You're saying people get suspended for not complying with the dress code?

FOWLER: Yes. Absolutely.

MARTIN: Claudio, do you have a view of, there are some who would argue that the zero-tolerance method of school discipline is contributing to that.

SANCHEZ: Actually, it's interesting you throw out that term because this is a report that didn't try to evaluate, you know, the success of zero-tolerance policies. But one aspect of this that is interesting is that there are mandatory suspensions where if you do bring a gun to school or a weapon and are caught with drugs, the law, the state or federal law say you have to get, you know, do something with this kid. You just can't leave him in the classroom.

But then there's that discretionary policies where, and I believe the number was 97 percent of the cases of suspensions/expulsions were discretionary. And that means it was more subjective. When we reported on this the first time I talked to a superintendent in Plano, Texas, who said if you're asking me whether, you know, teachers are bigoted, racist, prejudice, and jumping the gun and, you know, railroading a kid who is black or Latino, yeah, you see that.

But then he said we're not seeing it to the degree that people think it happens though. And here's where teacher training, here's where resources and making these decisions in consultation should kick in. The problem is that too many school systems, districts, certainly in Texas, maybe they're hiding their heads in the sand. But they're not really paying attention to how prevalent this discretionary decision that's being made that often does hurt these kids because instead of giving them a second or a third chance, these are kids that are, again, put in a pipeline where they end up in more trouble. These are the kids that, again, are more likely to repeat a grade and drop out of school.

MARTIN: I want to bring Emma Tai into the conversation now. She is the coordinator of Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, or VOYCE. That is a youth group. It's student led, but the purpose is what? Emma, how would you describe it? to create a more positive learning environment and to address some of these issues around disciplinary policies? How would you describe it?

TAI: Yes. Sure. So VOYCE is a coalition is seven community organizations led by students of color throughout the city of Chicago. And we specifically work based on the belief that the people who are most directly affected by these problems have to be at the table when we're talking about the policy solutions.

MARTIN: And your organization specifically calls for zero-tolerance polices to be written out of the Chicago Public School's Code of Conduct. Why do you think that's important?

TAI: Basically it goes back to what Claudio and Deborah were saying earlier, which is that we are seeing a huge level of variance in terms of how these discipline policies are being used and at leads to racial disparities and just a feeling of injustice among the young people and a lack of school safety. So I think that they really want to see a student code of conduct that places clear limitations on how these harsh discipline measures can be used.

MARTIN: And Claudio, explain again the link though, with these disciplinary policies and the dropout rate. What are you saying? It's that students get discouraged or that they lose so much time they feel they can't catch up or what is the link?

SANCHEZ: The link that I've seen in reporting for the dropout series that we're running this week is that these are all kids who have gotten in trouble early on. And what many of them complain about is that no one really understood them, and no one understood what was going at home, no one understood why they were acting out. In many places, because of budget cuts, alternative programs for them didn't exist so schools may not have had a chance.

If this kid, in fact, posed in one case, if a kid posed a danger or a threat to others and maybe was a kid who was picking fights with everyone, if a school doesn't have a place, a holding pen of some sort or a place where you could put him in an alternative setting well, you know, the school doesn't have a choice because, you know, parents would be up in arms if you let a kid who has been fighting stay in the classroom. And so you have, anecdotally anyway, I find, that a lot of these kids who run into trouble early for whatever reason, they could be academic behavior related. There just aren't any options for them.

MARTIN: Emma, to that point, your group issued a report saying that Chicago Public Schools spent 14 times more money on security than on school counseling. Is that accurate?

TAI: Yeah. So we did an analysis of the 2011 Chicago Public School's budget and we found that $51.4 million was set aside for school-based security guards, while only $3.5 million was set aside for school-based college coaches.

MARTIN: Well, what about though Emma, could you pick up on Claudio's point, which is that, you know, many parents and frankly, some students might say I'm sorry about that but I have a right to learn too. And if my learning is going to be continually disrupted by people with a bad attitude, or whatever their issues are, I need that to be dealt with. And it is unfair to the kids who are not disruptive who are being short-changed by this behavior? Well, what do you say to that?

TAI: You know, our campaign to end zero-tolerance policies here in Chicago is really led by young people who come from all aspects, right. We have valedictorians and we have young people who've been arrested and suspended multiple times. And I think they all agree that removing someone from the classroom for two weeks especially if they feel like it's unfair or it's - there's no real justice to it or there was no effort made to prevent misbehavior from happening, it doesn't actually solve the problem. It doesn't address the root causes of that conduct, so when that person ends up back in the classroom there's even a greater sense of alienation and rejection.

MARTIN: Deborah, what about you? What are your thoughts about that?

FOWLER: Well, first, to Claudio's point about why kids drop out when they've been repeatedly disciplined. I've talked to so many kids that are now in the Texas Youth Commission and talked to them about their experience in school before getting involved with the juvenile justice system.

MARTIN: The Texas Youth Commission being the juvenile justice system.

FOWLER: Which, exactly. Precisely. And so often what I hear is they simply didn't feel welcome in school. They didn't feel like there was a place for them. They didn't feel like there was a role for them in that environment. And these are kids who when I started to talk to them about their disciplinary history, had been repeatedly referred to, you know, suspended, sent to alternative schools and expelled before ever coming into contact with the juvenile justice system.

So what we've learned now from The Council of State Governments report is, that the traditional methods of suspension and expulsion really don't work to address student misbehavior. What we see instead is that kids just get repeatedly referred. They end up in this cycle of referrals over and over and over again without the root of their behavioral issues ever being addressed.

MARTIN: And finally, before I let each of you know, I'm going to ask each of you are there disciplinary methods that are more effective, that are effective in addressing the problem, keeping classrooms positive learning environments for all the students but that don't meet this kind of cycle of, you know, suspension, dropout and then all that flows from that? Deborah, I'll start with you...


MARTIN: ...then I'll go to Emma. And then Claudio, I will give you the last word. So, Deborah, are they are methods that are more effective?

FOWLER: Absolutely. Yes. In both, one of the interesting findings of this study first of all was that you see even in campuses that have exactly the same demographics - whether you're looking at campus attributes or student demographics that there are some that have a higher than expected referral rate in some that have a lower than expected referral rate. So we clearly know that there are things that schools can do to affect their referral rates.

MARTIN: Emma, what about you? And I take it that part of your work is to give students a voice, and so they may not have done a deep study on this. But what are you finding from your student members? Do they have ideas about methods of discipline that work better that serve to create a positive learning environment for everybody?

TAI: Yeah. You know, what our young people say and what is really backed up by the research, is that the heart of this problem is relationships, right? So that even if you have a school that is located in a neighborhood that you would think of as having problems with school safety, if that school has functioning healthy relationships between young people and adults in the building they overcome the levels of school violence that would have otherwise been predicted by those demographics.

So when we were preparing for this report we did national site visits to a number of different cities with our young people, and I just want to hold up a couple different examples. So there was this school we visited in the Bronx called Banana Kelly, and this is a school that's in the heart of the Bronx and there are no metal detectors in that school. That is something that really stood out to our young people. And what they haven't said are teams of supportive adults whose explicit focus is to build relationships with the young people in the school.

Another example would be the Baltimore school district, where they rewrote the Code of Conduct and placed, again, limits on how out of school suspensions can be used and they've seen the suspension rate in Baltimore drop from 26,000 suspensions in a year to 10,000. And the graduation rates are an all-time high in the three years since that new code of conduct has been put in place. So, again, this report is really part of a campaign that we're launching here to not just rewrite the Code of Conduct, but to call for a greater investment in the support systems and prevention systems that are needed to address the root causes of student misconduct.

MARTIN: Claudio, final thought for you?

SANCHEZ: I guess two points. One that the Texas study's conclusion is pretty clear: school disciplinary policies may be doing more harm than good. Second, that I don't think there's any real substitute for a sound and really good academic program for some of these kids. It's amazing what some of these kids can do academically, intellectually. And yet, they're treated as basket cases.

So the success that I've seen in dealing with these kids is where you engage them by bringing in something that's relevant to them. Whether it's working with their hands or working with something they're really passionate about. Because unless you do that, unless you engage these kids, these kids are going to be bored and they're going to be trouble.

MARTIN: Claudio Sanchez is NPR's education correspondent. He's been reporting on this nation's dropout crisis. If you want to follow his coverage, we'll link to his pieces on our website. Go to, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE. He joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C. today.

Deborah Fowler was also with us. She's the deputy director for Texas Appleseed, a public interest law firm that focuses on social justice issues. She was a consultant on the study that we've been talking about. And if you want to read that study we'll also link to it on our website.

Also with us, Emma Tai, the coordinator for Voices of Youth in Chicago Education. That's a community organization that advocates for reform in Chicago public schools. She joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. I thank you all so much for joining us.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome.

FOWLER: Thank you.

TAI: Thank you.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.