Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in Schools?

By: Kate Ristow, Youth Program Intern

The school system aims to provide today’s youth with an arena to develop appropriate socialization among their peers as well as obtain a meaningful education. Education and the ability to create significant, personable connections with others continues to be an increasingly valued marker of achievement and ability. However, many students who are facing mental health concerns find navigating the school system's expectations and classrooms to be difficult. They are continuously finding frustration in being expected to act within an environment that their minds do not coincide with or find comfort in.

Today’s schools are often under equipped and under educated to accommodate the many students who are living with various undiagnosed and diagnosed mental health concerns and disabilities. Teachers often lack the proper understanding and training of how to appropriately respond to a student who is having difficulties within the classroom. These difficulties can manifest in a variety of ways including, isolation, poor and inconsistent attendance, low achievement, disruptive behaviors or dropping out. Many teacher’s first, and often only, response is to send the student out of the classroom. This passes the student along, in many cases unnecessarily, to an often overused and under staffed team of special education teachers, school counselors and social workers or school security officers.

Many schools operate within a zero tolerance policy. While this phenomena conveys face validity, presenting school safety and zero tolerance for disruptive and undesirable behaviors, the underlying bias reveals a threat to students who are overwhelmingly faced with mental health concerns and behavioral disabilities. Students who portray behaviors seen as problematic within the classroom are often deemed as bad, disruptive or a threat to other student’s safety and educational attainment. Prompting their removal from the classroom in efforts to improve the educational opportunity of the other students while simultaneously being denied their own. The school system’s zero tolerance of disruptive behavior fails to address the underlying reasoning for the behavior, the child’s rehabilitative needs and attempts to accommodate the child, by rather steering them out of the classroom.

The many youth today who are facing a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health concern are often deterred and excluded from the school systems mainstream classrooms. Undereducated and ill equipped teachers and schools lack the resources in time, personnel and funds to properly address the underlying behaviors and implement appropriate accommodations.

NAMI recognizes the increasing need among youth mental health and the importance the school system can play in education, early recognition and access to resources. These conversations are critical not only among teachers in helping understanding their students behaviors but also among youth and their peers.

NAMI Dane County aims to spark these conversations and educate youth and administration about mental health through its Ending the Silence classroom presentations. These presentations provide mental health education as well as include individual’s personal stories and recovery with mental illness. If you are interested in becoming an Ending the Silence presenter or scheduling a presentation, please contact the NAMI Dane County office at 608-249-7188.