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We need ‘zero tolerance’ for laws that push children out of schools

Holly Welborn
Holly Welborn
Protestors for school safety gather in front of the Clark County School District administration building, Wednesday, April 13, 2022, following a beating of an Eldorado High School teacher by a student. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent).

If the zero tolerance discipline policies instituted in schools during the 1980s worked, we wouldn’t have discipline issues and few criminal legal system issues today. 

While phrases like “zero tolerance” sound like the school is addressing the issue of discipline, it doesn’t address the cause of the behavior. It doesn’t explain the context of the behavior. It doesn’t repair or make it better for the victim. Most importantly, it does not teach students the behaviors we want them to engage in to be a part of the school community and our local community. This approach simply isolates the wrongdoer and often causes permanent harm that will ripple throughout their life.

Punitive discipline is ineffective. Systems like preventative discipline, positive behavior supports and restorative practices have arisen as more effective alternatives. Despite successes and provable outcomes (Cheyenne High School in Clark County has shown a remarkable 98 percent success with its program), the outdated idea that only harsh, punitive discipline works remains popular and politicized. 

In response to sincere concerns for teacher safety on Nevada campuses, the Legislature is considering two bills, AB285, sponsored by Assemblywoman Angie Taylor, and AB330, sponsored by Gov. Joe Lombardo. After weeks of negotiations with a broad array of stakeholders, AB285 passed the Senate Education Committee with bipartisan support. Child advocates concerned about reducing the expulsion and permanent expulsion age to children as young as 6 years old were satisfied with an amendment permitting this practice only in extreme circumstances and with approval of the school board.   

But now, there is a push to pass AB330, a zero-tolerance proposal that, unless amended, would revert the state to harsh, exclusionary disciplinary policies permitting a child as young as 5 years old to be expelled from school for a first behavioral occurrence in certain circumstances. 

There are currently no alternative in-person educational placements for elementary school children. This means that parents of children in this highly formative age group will have to choose between educating their children and maintaining a job. Young children will be left at home all day, which only exacerbates behavioral issues and increases their chances of future child welfare or criminal legal system involvement.

Anyone who had school-age children at home during the pandemic knows firsthand how difficult it is to balance a child’s learning with a lack of peer or social interaction. Imagine those children, many home alone with parents at work all day, with no access to education or socialization.

It is hard for children excluded from school to close the educational gap. Do we add the additional burden of catching these students up to our overworked teachers? Do we have them repeat grades, a method that has also been proven ineffective and expensive? What lesson have they learned from zero tolerance and how will it instill the values we as a society value in them?

For decades, studies have pointed out that not only is punitive discipline ineffective, but can lead to repetitive and more violent behavioral issues. When a three-day suspension no longer works, or a five-day or 10-day, what is left to teach a student about how to do better, instead of worse? These approaches push children out of school and into dropout, homelessness, underemployment and/or jail. 

Other research reveals that the younger a child is pushed out of the classroom, the more likely it will impact their entire life. Early and unnecessary interaction with the juvenile justice system significantly increases the child's likelihood of entering the adult criminal justice system later. According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, students suspended or expelled for a disciplinary violation are nearly three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system within the following year. 

It’s also no surprise that those expulsions will mainly impact children of color. When the late Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson sponsored SB168, Nevada’s Restorative Justice law, children of color in Clark County made up 89 percent of all behavior referrals and 87 percent of expulsion recommendations. This disproportionality is the most pronounced for Black students who, at 14 percent of the student population, account for 41 percent of expulsion recommendations.

No system will ever be perfect, but the alternatives to zero- tolerance have proven their worth. The goal is always a safe environment for teachers, students and families. Children should feel like they belong in school and that school is a place to learn. 

We need to stop working to legislate paths that push young children out of schools. Because that’s something we, as a state, should have zero tolerance for. 

Holly Welborn is the Executive Director of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance. She is a licensed Nevada attorney and youth civil rights advocate. 


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