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Zero-tolerance discipline approaches: Perspectives from exemplary alternative schools

Kruse, Timothy L.
Scope and Method of Study: The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore alternative school administrator, teacher, and student perceptions of the factors that surround zero-tolerance discipline policies and practices, and to identify discipline alternatives that do not remove or exclude students from the school setting. A case study was employed to explain the reasons behind the unexpected consequences of zero tolerance discipline practices. Participants in the study included 6 students and 15 staff members from 3 Midwestern alternative schools. Data was collected through formal and informal interviews and conversations.
Findings and Conclusions: Schools must adapt and update their discipline policies to better address the needs of at-risk students. The at-risk students who attend alternative schools are often transient and have challenging home situations, which impacts their attendance and attitude, and creates gaps in their education. Schools should identify these at-risk students, and place them with teachers specially trained to deal with these students unique behaviors and needs. Applying zero tolerance discipline by automatically suspending a student out-of-school is appropriate only if the student poses an imminent threat to the personal safety of themselves or others. Long-term out-of-school suspensions do not consistently impact misbehavior, and in fact may lead students to behave in a worse manner upon return. Out-of-school suspension is an unreliable method of disciplining students, and should be phased out as a punishment. In-school suspension is effective as a discipline method as long as it is short-term, allows the student to continue his education, and permits the student to maintain some connection with the school. At-risk students prefer the small school atmosphere, where they feel less anonymous and are able to develop relationships with adults and with other students. Alternative school staff focuses on listening to the students and dealing with individual needs, in line with Glasser�s discipline model, and all participants in this study noted the importance of having a large and available counseling component in the school.