Testimony to Joint Senate School Safety Subcommittee: Creating a Positive School Climate and Eliminating Harsh Zero Tolerance Policies Improve School Safety

The following is written testimony submitted by Ohio Poverty Law Center staff attorney Sarah Biehl at the Joint Senate School Safety Committee hearing at the Ohio Statehouse on March 12, 2013:

Senator LaRose, Senator Lehner, members of the School Safety Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the subject of school safety.  This is a vitally important topic for Ohio’s youth, and I commend you for taking the time to seek public input on how the legislature might best address it and protect children’s right to receive their educations in safe, secure, positive environments.

My interest in this topic stems from my experiences researching, analyzing, and advocating on school discipline issues, including zero tolerance policies, the overuse of harsh exclusionary discipline such as suspension and expulsion, and the negative outcomes for students that come with increased police presence in many schools.  I am here today to urge the committee to focus on taking action that will help Ohio schools work with their communities to build positive school climates where students, teachers, and staff feel safe, protected, and respected.  Evidence is growing across the United States that the best way to do this is to dismantle the school to prison pipeline:  eliminate zero tolerance policies, reduce the use of harsh exclusionary discipline to address minor, non-violent misbehavior among students, and put in place systems that build trust, respect, and dignity among all members of a school community.

In November 2012, the Ohio Poverty Law Center and Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio jointly published an issue brief entitled “Zero Tolerance and Exclusionary School Discipline Policies Harm Students and Contribute to the Cradle to Prison Pipeline.”[1]  In the brief, we drew on Ohio Department of Education data to show how Ohio children are being suspended or expelled from school at alarming rates, mostly for non-violent behavior such as “disobedient or disruptive behavior.”  Moreover, Ohio’s most vulnerable students disproportionately bear the burden of such policies.  African American students statewide are over five times more likely to be suspended for engaging in the same behavior as white students.  Children with disabilities are anywhere from two to eight times more likely to be suspended as non-disabled children.  Low-income children are two and a half times more likely to be suspended as children who are not low-income.

These disparities and the overall trend toward excluding children from school as a form of discipline make our schools less safe because these practices foster negative school climates in which children feel criminalized and isolated from what is, for many, one of the few stable institutions in their lives.  The consequences to schools, children, and communities are devastating.  Research nationally shows that schools that use zero tolerance policies and have higher suspension rates are not safer – in fact, the increase in the use of harsh zero tolerance policies correlates with an increase in violent incidents on school property, and also correlates with lower academic achievement and test scores.  For children, a history of prior suspensions from school is the number one factor that leads to kids dropping out of school and is linked with a host of other negative academic and life outcomes.  And communities where a large number of young people are neither in school nor working are not as productive or stable as communities with higher high school graduation and employment rates.  When our schools and communities are less safe and stable, our students and school staff are, too.

Since 2004, I have coordinated and worked with the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC)[2], a national multi-stakeholder coalition of youth, parents, educators, grassroots groups, and policy and legal advocacy groups that works to challenge the systemic problem of school pushout in our nation’s schools.  One of the goals of the DSC is to ensure that those most affected by the education system and school pushout are at the center of our work and have a voice in policies that will affect their lives.  Since the Newtown shootings last year, a group of youth leaders within DSC have been working on an effort to ensure that their voices are heard by the policymakers around the country who are considering new policies in response to Newtown.  Since none of those students are here today, I wanted to share a small excerpt of their statement[3] with you:

We can imagine the pain and suffering that the youth and families in Newtown, Connecticut are experiencing.  As youth growing up on some of America’s deadliest streets, we are all too familiar with gun violence and its impacts.  Too many of us have been shot and shot at.  We have buried our friends and family members.  Nearly all of us have been to more funerals than graduations.  No one wants the violence to stop more than we do. . . .For forty years, federal, state, and local dollars have gone toward the massive build-up of juvenile halls, jails and prisons while simultaneously severe cuts have been made to our school and higher education budgets. . . .As a result, in communities of color throughout the nation, students now experience a vicious school-to-jail track.  These policies haven’t protected us, helped us to graduate or taught us anything about preventing violence.  They have taught us to fear a badge, to hate school and to give up on our education.  We understand too well that guns in anyone’s hands are not the solution.  You can’t build peace with a piece.

Obviously, these students represent a particularly urban perspective, and are approaching this issue specifically as youth of color, and you as policymakers have to make policies that apply to all school districts in Ohio, urban, rural, and suburban, but I think their perspective is uniquely compelling.  Their full statement goes on to make many of the same recommendations I make to you here today.


Instead of continuing harsh school discipline policies and placing more guns and/or police officers in schools, I urge you to consider policies that will build positive school climates instead:

  1. Eliminate zero tolerance policies.  Ohio has a state statute, R.C. 3313.534, that directs Ohio boards of education to adopt “a policy of zero tolerance for violent, disruptive, or inappropriate behavior.”  This state statute is outdated, ineffective, and should be eliminated and replaced with a revised code section specifically encouraging school districts to adopt positive, preventive approaches to school discipline and bullying.
  2. Develop, promote, and fund trainings and other resources for teachers, administrators, and other education professionals on classroom behavior management, school-wide positive behavior interventions and supports, restorative practices and restorative justice programs, and other proven, evidence-based models for teaching children positive behavior.
  3. Create opportunities for parents and students to be involved in implementing and monitoring new school discipline policies that promote positive school culture.
  4. Address bullying in schools by providing incentives for school to put in place preventive bullying programs and by adding an enumerated list of categories of students to be protected from bullying.  Enumerated policies have been shown nationally to be more effective at increasing student safety and improving the efficacy of anti-bullying strategies.

There is a lot more information and data, both locally and nationally, on these topics and I would be happy to share details with any of you who have more questions or would like to talk in further detail.  I hope that I have helped to provide a slightly different perspective on how this committee can best work to increase safety and security in Ohio’s schools, and I hope fervently that regardless of what this committee does, it maintains its focus on ensuring that all Ohio children have access to safe, high quality educations and are treated with dignity and fairness in school.

[3] Statement By Youth of Color On School Safety and Gun Violence In America in the Aftermath of the Mass Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, http://www.dignityinschools.org/sites/default/files/Youth_Statement_Gun_Violence.pdf