School Discipline Expert Bernadine Dohrn to Speak on “Zero Tolerance” Policies

BALTIMORE—Bernadine Dohrn, a nationally renowned professor, advocate and author, will speak about how students, parents and teachers can advocate for more effective discipline strategies rather than “zero tolerance” policies at an Open Society Institute-Baltimore forum this Wednesday from 10 am-11:30 am.

Zero tolerance policies, which were enacted across the country after the Columbine High School shooting with the goal of preventing other violent incidents, are not necessarily making our schools safer and have serious unintended consequences according to Dohrn. Under these policies, young people who commit relatively minor infractions—talking back to the teacher, writing graffiti on school property, etc.—are often suspended, expelled or even prosecuted in court instead of receiving in-school punishments. As a result, youth receive criminal records for relatively minor offenses. In addition, many youth discouraged from returning to school after their suspensions are over, leaving them without a high school degree or options for the future.

“All across the country cities like Baltimore are facing a school discipline crisis,” says Dohrn, who is the fourth in a series of speakers on the connection between school discipline polices and the juvenile justice system. “It is understandable that parents and educators would turn to harsher disciplinary practices and other strategies like metal detectors, police, cameras, dogs, and school lock-downs in an effort to protect our children. But we have done very little to examine the costs of these measures, and whether they make our kids safer.”

For example, U.S. Department of Education figures from the 1970s to the present show that the percentage of high school seniors self-reporting they were free from injury, threats of injury with a weapon, theft and assault has remained relatively constant at 85 percent over the last three decades. Nevertheless, the percentage of suspensions has nearly doubled. And African-American and Latino children are disproportionately affected by this trend. Data from the Maryland Department of Education show that in the 2000-01 school year one out of every six African-American students was suspended in the Baltimore City schools. African-Americans from Baltimore City alone accounted for almost 20 percent of the state’s suspensions.

Dohrn’s talk will focus on how parents and educators can advocate for alternative, research-based discipline strategies that have been shown to be more effective in stemming violence and creating a suitable learning environment.

“We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the destructive consequences of ‘zero tolerance’ discipline policies on Baltimore’s children,” says Jane Sundius, OSI-Baltimore education and youth development program director. “The good news is that this forum series has been welcomed by both school and juvenile justice officials who are beginning to develop new approaches to keeping our students safe and in school.”

Dohrn is a Clinical Associate Professor of Law and the Director and Founder of the Children and Family Justice Center in Chicago, Il. She is the co-editor of two books: A Century of Juvenile Justice and Resisting Zero Tolerance: A Handbook for Parents, Teachers, and Students, and the author of Look Out Kid/It’s Something You Did! Zero Tolerance for Children. Dohrn is the fourth lecturer in the 2003-4 School Discipline Policies and their Criminal Justice Consequences forum series at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore.