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Zero tolerance policies can increase risk for schools


A kindergartener is arrested for violating her school's zero tolerance policy on weapons after she brings a pair of art scissors to class.

A third-grader is suspended for three months for violating her school's zero tolerance policy on drugs for bringing baby aspirin to school.

A high school student is suspended for violating his school's zero tolerance policy on fighting after a classmate with a history of behavioral problems sucker punches him and breaks his jaw.

The boy who assaulted his classmate never modifies his behavior despite all of the class time he missed throughout his school years due to numerous suspensions and expulsions. He was subsequently killed in a bar fight.

Those examples show the inadequacies of public schools' strict zero tolerance policies on potentially dangerous student behavior, according to school violence experts and national studies on school crime and childhood development. The anecdotes underscore that the policies--by themselves--are usually ineffective, often unfair, sometimes ludicrous and potentially harmful, experts say.

Ten years of school violence research shows that schools create safer cultures by implementing less rigid discipline policies that are underpinned by programs designed to prevent problematic student behavior, concluded the Zero Tolerance Task Force of the American Psychological Assn. in an August 2006 report. Other child and antiviolence experts concur (see story, page 20).

Although they typically were not involved in developing the policies and have no official role in evaluating them, school district risk managers should insert themselves into the issue of school discipline and behavioral programs, several experts say. The safety and liability and even school culture issues that arise from ineffective discipline policies are clearly risk management concerns, they say.

Fast action vs. good judgment

Zero tolerance policies, introduced in the early 1990s to discourage drug abuse and later applied to numerous rules on student behavior, send a strong message that schools will deal sternly with students over any behavior that could harm others or themselves. Students who violate those policies--regardless of extenuating circumstances--typically face suspension and expulsion and oftentimes arrest.

The problem with those policies is that school officials typically use them as a quick solution to behavioral issues in place of the more painstaking approach of exercising good judgment on a case-by-case basis, experts say.

"More often than not, zero tolerance was first instituted because people didn't know how to respond to instances they could be flexible with," said Gary Salmans, a Troy, Mich.-based executive vp of risk management services in the Critical Incident Prevention Management division of Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

The term zero tolerance "sounds real good," said school violence consultant David L. Salmon, a senior advisor with OSS Law Enforcement Advisors of Spring, Texas. "It has a political ring to it. It doesn't have a practical ring to it."

Some school districts are beginning to agree, though many school officials are reticent about discussing decisions to abandon or modify their longstanding policies and, instead, address student problems on a case-by-case basis, expert say.

Still, many primary and secondary schools continue to enforce strict zero tolerance policies, according to experts.

Mixed crime stats

According to the latest federal statistics, student safety nationwide has improved in nonfatal crimes, but the student homicide rate--while generally below the rate during the 1990s--has worsened this decade (see story, page 22).

Meanwhile, during the 2003-2004 school year, the nation's 36,800 public schools seriously disciplined 655,700 students, with suspensions of five days or longer accounting for 74% of those actions, according to government statistics.

But removing disruptive students from the structured environment that schools provide often is ineffective and many times only worsens the problem, experts say (see story, page 21).

Risk managers can and should play a role in helping to reform those policies, experts say.

"I feel their input should be part of the process," said Katharine M. Peeling, the outgoing president of the Public Risk Management Assn. and risk management specialist in the Office of Insurance Management at Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Annapolis, Md. Ms. Peeling does not have formal responsibility for discipline procedures in her school district but has inserted herself into the process.

There are two major reasons why other risk managers need to get involved, she said. First, "when you have unreasonable policies, you're going to get sued," she said. "Risk managers would have a much better understanding of the fallout" of disciplinary programs that are ineffective, said Ms. Peeling, referring to, for example, continuing school violence and associated litigation.

Dorothy Gjerdrum, the St. Paul, Minn.-based executive director of the public entity and scholastic division at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., agreed on the need for risk management involvement.

Any time there is "a break between policy and enactment of a policy, there's a potential for liability," she said.

For schools, that risk is created when zero tolerance policies are implemented but school faculty and administrators are not trained in how to apply those policies appropriately, Ms. Gjerdrum said.

Ms. Peeling and Ms. Gjerdrum also agreed that risk managers could and should play an important role in shaping school culture.

Ms. Gjerdrum said that risk management input on matters that affect school culture would reflect an enterprise risk management perspective, "which is really starting to emerge" among other types of public entities.

Regardless of a school district official's title or formal duties, "We're all here for the same thing--we're all here to educate the kids," Ms. Peeling said. For children to learn and achieve the level of test scores that a school desires, "there has to be a safe school environment."

Liability considerations

Some critics would like to see schools abandon zero tolerance policies. The idea is not to give up on holding dangerous or self-destructive students accountable for their actions but to give school officials and the police greater latitude in how they deal with incidents.

For police in particular, zero tolerance policies can be problematic, said Mr. Salmon of OSS. When police follow those policies and arrest students for noncriminal school code infractions, they could lose their qualified immunity for failing to use discretion, which is a key issue in police immunity cases, he said.

But police often follow those policies because of a lack of adequate training in this area, said Mr. Salmon, who also is a police academy instructor. "It's very confusing to police."

Meanwhile, such cases typically go nowhere because juvenile courts toss them out, he said.

That can lead to one or two problems, he said: The school's authority is weakened in the eyes of its students, and the incidents sometimes promote harassment of the arrested student.

Experts noted that zero tolerance policies on bullying and fighting also often backfire. Experts say they often see schools mete out comparable discipline to both a bully and the student who fought back against a tormentor.

"That's the best example of zero tolerance not working that I've ever seen," Mr. Salmon said.

Gallagher's Mr. Salmans also is critical of strict zero tolerance policies, but he said schools do not have to abandon them.

A school still could enforce a zero tolerance policy against fighting, for example, he said. But the policy should spell out how an instigator would be treated differently from the other brawling student.

To ensure that a disciplinary action is appropriate, a committee of school officials should evaluate each case, he said.

Ms. Gjerdrum, however, is not as critical of strict zero tolerance policies as she is of a lack of multi-pronged and coordinated programs to reduce risk stemming from student behavior.

"It's sort of a tricky question," Ms. Gjerdrum said, "because it's not the policy itself that creates the risk; it's the lack of coordination or implementation of other important and related program and activities," such as staff and student training, safety and security and employee assistance programs for employees who feel stressed by the school environment.

How risk managers win a seat at the table where discipline policies and behavioral programs are formulated will vary depending on the school officials and risk managers involved, she said.

"For administrators, it's very hard to respond to things before they happen," so risk managers would have to "use some of their softer skills" to play a role in their schools' zero tolerance policies, Ms. Gjerdrum said. Risk managers have to communicate to those responsible for the policies the threats that the policies can create, then offer to help minimize those risks, she said.

One way to step into the process is to find a high-ranking official to help champion the risk manager's effort, Ms. Gjerdrum said.

Another approach would be to use professional associations to network with other risk managers who have addressed this issue, she said.

Or, risk managers who already have substantial clout in their districts might consider forming a cross-discipline task force to examine the issue, Ms. Gjerdrum said.

All of those methods point to the underpinnings of effective risk management, Ms. Peeling said "You can't shove risk management down peoples' throats; it won't work," she said. "they have to think it's a good idea."