Put the Last Nails in the Coffin of Zero Tolerance

Tonight, the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board will consider a so-called final draft of a Behavior Education Plan for possible adoption with proposed implementation in the beginning of the 2014-15 school year.  Consistent with the 3 prior drafts, about which I have reported previously, this version goes a long way to end antiquated zero tolerance discipline policies in Madison, if the Board adopts it.

The school board will consider the new plan after it decides whether to expel my client from school for 1 1/2 years as originally proposed by Superintendent Jen Cheatham, and ultimately adopted by the expulsion hearing officer after a nearly 5 hour grueling hearing. This case has received significant media attention as an instance of zero tolerance run amok, since my client made the only behavioral mistake she has ever made in her nearly 10 years of public school education in Madison by succumbing to peer pressure and bringing a small amount of alcohol in a water bottle to school, and giving a small amount to a friend (neither of whom drank any of it).  Fortunately, Superintendent Cheatham has subsequently recommended that the School Board apply the proposed Behavior Education Plan to pending expulsions for the remainder of this year, under which my client would not have been expelled.


Thus, the MMSD School board has multiple opportunities tonight to put the last nails in the coffin of zero tolerance and shift the school district’s focus to the far more appropriate education of its children when misbehavior happens.  However, prior to the vote, it is important to understand both the strengths and weaknesses of the final draft.

In terms of strengths, the final draft makes quite clear that, as Superintendent Cheatham’s introductory message states,

  • zero-tolerance policies that result in frequent removal from school are ineffective in changing student behavior and in fact have  negative impact on student outcomes–lower academic achievement, drop out rates and increased likelihood that a student will enter the criminal justice system.” and
  • “these policies disproportionately affect certain groups of students, especially our African American students and students with disabilities.”

The final draft continues to specify important rights and responsibilities of students, parents, teachers, administrator and the school board.  The final draft adds important provisions that:

  • require school administrators to not only keep good records on inappropriate student behavior, but adds a requirement that they also record behavioral interventions and responses;
  • requires the school board to use qualitative and quantitative data to create and evaluate policies that promote thriving school environments that are respectful, engaging, vibrant and culturally relevant.

The main thrust of the plan is to:

  • institute district-wide systems of positive behavior support (PBS);
  • implement a system of progressive intervention & discipline;
  • and reducing the offenses for which expulsion will be recommended to very few and only those that involve actual violence or possession of a gun or firearm.

Implementing such a plan effectively will involve both a cultural shift in practice as well as addition of staff resources for training and support.  To that end, Superintendent Cheatham is proposing allocating $1.6 million to 17 district schools, including all district high schools, which have records of challenging discipline practices.  Adopting of this recommendation will be critical to successful implementation of the plan.

Of course, like any major change in policy, the plan is not perfect.  As I have stated before, despite statements within both the plan and the Implications for Practice document that accountability is part of the plan, there are absolutely no measurable goals set forth in the plan! How can anyone be held accountable if the plan has no measurable goals?

Moreover, the entire Plan continues to fail to adopt these key provisions:

  • A commitment that no educational time will be lost due to disciplinary removals;
  • Elimination of racial and disability disparities in the district’s disciplinary practices; and
  • although the plan continues to trumpet the “rights and responsibilities” of students, parents & guardians, teachers & staff, administrators, central office staff and the Board of Education, the plan remains silent regarding the consequences of any failures to honor those rights or fulfill those responsibilities.

Despite these flaws, I urge the Board to adopt the final draft of this plan tonight, and to work to remedy these flaws as the plan moves forward in the future.  Doing so, and readmitting my expelled client so she can go back to school tomorrow will go a long way to put the last nails in the coffin of zero tolerance in Madison, which will likely lead to the kind of success Colorado is now experiencing after that state passed a new law in 2012 limiting the use of zero tolerance practices and emphasizing restorative practices.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

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