Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Students Left Behind: Is It Ever Okay to Give up on a Child?


The Challenge

Concerns about student safety and learning have led to the adoption of a "zero tolerance" approach to discipline at many schools. But the policy has sometimes resulted in shutting children out of school. In 2003-04, the last year for which statistics are available, 21,501 students were expelled from California schools. What do we owe these children?

What's at Stake

According to a recent study by the group Public Agenda, 85 percent of teachers surveyed believe that most children's school experience suffers at the expense of a few chronic offenders. But what should schools do about these repeated troublemakers? Zero tolerance was intended to ensure that certain serious misbehaviors, such as the possession of drugs and weapons, were completely disallowed on campus. Yet these policies, according to the American Bar Association, too often catch students whose offenses are not serious, such as the possession of a manicure kit or giving a Midol tablet to a friend. The ABA also found inappropriate referrals of these youngsters to the courts, creating what some have called a "schoolhouse to jailhouse track."

Critical Questions

  • How should schools balance their responsibilities to the majority of students and their responsibilities to youngsters with serious behavior problems? Are there children who do not deserve to be educated?
  • Zero tolerance establishes the same punishment-expulsion-for a variety of offenses. As the ABA puts it, "State laws and school district policies apply
    the same expulsion rules to the 6-year-old as to the 17-year-old; to the first-time offender as to the chronic troublemaker; to the child with a gun as to the child with a Swiss Army knife." Is this fair?
  • Zero-tolerance policies have had disproportionate effects on minority students. African-American and Latino students were expelled or suspended in numbers two times greater than their percentage of the high school population, according to a study by the Juvenile Rights Project. The study also found that African-American students were more likely to be expelled or suspended than Caucasian students who had committed comparable offenses. Is this disparity itself enough to call the policy into question?

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