Gregg Toppo, USA TODAY
Automatically suspending or expelling misbehaving students is an "increasingly questionable" response to school disruptions, the nation's largest group of pediatricians says in a policy statement released Monday.
So-called zero-tolerance suspension and expulsion policies are a "drastic" response that can actually keep schools from dealing with underlying reasons for students' misbehaving, the American Academy of Pediatrics says.
The academy is a professional organization of 60,000 primary care pediatricians, specialists and pediatric surgeons. It regularly publishes policy statements on medical issues such as obesity as well as on school-related issues.
The group criticizes zero-tolerance suspensions and expulsions that were originally intended to keep guns and drugs out of schools but now are applied more broadly in many cases, such as when students bring toy guns or headache medicine to school. The policies often punish minority students disproportionately, research suggests.
A 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights analyzed several large school districts and found that African-American students, who were 18% of the sample group, accounted for 35% of suspensions and 39% of expulsions.
In some cases, a zero-tolerance policy may make sense if a school is actively investigating an incident, says Wisconsin pediatrician Jeffrey Lamont, who led the group that wrote the new statement. "That's different from saying, 'If you do this, you will automatically be expelled.' There's no hearing, there's no ifs, ands or buts. There's no consideration of mitigating circumstances."
Some educators favor zero-tolerance policies because they remove difficult students from school and are "fast-acting interventions that send a clear, consistent message that certain behaviors are not acceptable," the National Association of School Psychologists says. But it adds that the policies are "ineffective in the long run and are related to a number of negative consequences," including higher dropout rates.
The doctors' new statement, appearing in the online version of the journal Pediatrics, says removing a student from school is increasingly ineffective because more students arrive at school from homes in which no parent is home during the school day. In these cases, a suspended youth may "engage in more inappropriate behavior" or spend time with people who are a bad influence, the group says.
Physicians should be willing to help schools find more effective alternatives to "exclusionary discipline policies," the doctors group says. It supports alternatives such as school-wide "positive behavior intervention and support."
In addition to teaching academic subjects, Lamont says, schools also are responsible for teaching children to behave appropriately.
He says children learn good behavior "like they learn any other skill or body of knowledge," not just through having inappropriate actions condemned but also by having appropriate behavior recognized.