RTSC // Newsline Articles // From Zero Tolerance to Compassionate Accountability

Jane Crecco, MA, MSEd; Training and Support Specialist; Recruitment, Training and Support Center

On July 1, 2014, Chapter 222 (An Act Relative to Students’ Access to Educational Services and Exclusion from School) will take effect. This will end the era of Zero Tolerance for school discipline in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The law was signed by Governor Patrick on August 6, 2012 and applies to all students in general and special education.

Zero Tolerance is a phrase coined by the U.S. Attorney General in the late 1980s to refer to federal policy during the War on Drugs. The term spread to schools in the early 1990’s as an attempt to curb the violence of drugs, gangs, and weapons. By 1993 zero tolerance policies had been adopted across the country. They often included not only drugs and weapons, but smoking and school disruption. President Clinton signed the Gun Free Schools Act in 1994. This required a one calendar year expulsion for possession of a firearm and the referral of students to the criminal or juvenile justice system. Local districts extended the law to include drugs, alcohol, swearing, threats, and anything close to a gun or other weapon (nail files, bubble guns).

As the decades passed and data was collected on zero tolerance policies, counter-productive trends emerged. The hallmarks of the policy became school exclusion, suspension, and expulsion. Other disciplinary options were infrequently used. It became obvious, especially to civil rights advocates, that low-income students, minorities (especially African-American boys), and students with mental health and social-emotional disabilities were overly represented in the data.

It became apparent that there was little evidence to show that suspension or expulsion improved student behavior or increased school safety. 40% of suspended students had been suspended before. The primary predictor of suspension was a previous suspension. Zero tolerance became a tool to “push out” low-achievers and so-called troublemakers. Most would drop out, and many entered the school-to-prison pipeline.

Research began to show that certain preventative discipline techniques were better at creating safe schools. The first workshops on Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) were held in 1999. PBIS used a systems approach to discipline. It promoted alternatives like bullying prevention and conflict resolution. Peer mediation, better classroom management and early identification and intervention were also prized. Evidence showed that this approach worked, and worked well. The Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports was established by the Office of Special Education Programs, US Department of Education. The Center gives schools information and assistance in identifying, adapting, and sustaining effective disciplinary practices.

Fifteen years later, Massachusetts will become one of the first states to enact a new law changing how discipline is meted out in schools. The following is a summary of Chapter 222:

Any student excluded for more than 10 consecutive school days is entitled to educational services so they are able to make academic progress during that time, within a school-wide educational service plan developed by the principal

Students suspended for 10 or fewer consecutive days will also have the opportunity to make academic progress during suspension
Data on all exclusions, regardless of duration or type, will be reported to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Schools will be investigated for significant numbers of exclusions
School officials must exercise discretion and consider ways to re-engage students. They must avoid using suspension or expulsion until other options have been employed
No student shall be excluded for more than 90 school days
Due process and appeals will include the student and the parent and/or guardian
Students who have not graduated and have 10 consecutive absences will have an exit interview in order to consider alternative education or other placements
What does this mean for Massachusetts schools? While all school districts must abide by the law, some may choose to revise their Codes of Conduct and be done with it. The Boston Public Schools have already revised their lengthy Code of Conduct and are in the training and implementation stages of the law. The district has chosen to take a big step and embrace a paradigm shift towards safe, supportive, and positive discipline. Hopefully, other school districts will make the same shift.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is now in the process of reviewing the regulations that will drive Chapter 222. Public hearings will take place this December. New regulations will be released in the New Year.

1Russell J. Skiba, “Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice.” Indiana Education Policy Center, Policy Research Report #SRS2, August 2000.

2Thomas Mela, having led the coalition of advocates that promoted Chapter 222 and having worked closely with legislators to secure enactment, outlines changes in Mela, Thomas, “New school discipline/dropout reform law.” August 7, 2012, www.massadvocates.org/documents/SummaryofChapter222oftheActsof2012.pdf