School Discipline, Zero Tolerance Reform, Postmodernism and Law
David M Palmer BSc (Hons) M.Ed
PhD Student in Educational Leadership
College of Education
Prairie View A&M University
William Allan Kritsonis, PhD
Professor and Faculty Mentor
PhD Program in Educational Leadership
Prairie View A&M University
Member of the Texas A&M University
Visiting Lecturer (2005)
Oxford Round Table
University of Oxford, Oxford, England
Distinguished Alumnus (2004)
Central Washington University
College of Education and Professional
There is a need for educational reform of zero-tolerance policies in school disciplinary
management procedures. The phenomenon of unacceptable behavior among youth has
permeated culture and language creating subtle structures that deprecate the three modern
movements in education: - multiculturalism, character education and postmodernism. Students,
who differ from the conventional, both physically and culturally often find themselves at odds
with the schools and the law then the issues of misperceptions and proportionality become
paramount. With the keen anxiety over school safety and the advent of state supported "zero
tolerance" regulations, the risk of unethical and unfair practices for students from poor and
minority groups increase drastically. These more regimented and harsh policies mean that
schools, parents and community have an even greater responsibility to ensure that rules are
administered so that they do not further repress the most vulnerable segment of our population
nor be an excuse for students to be indiscipline.
There is increasing interest in the quality of children's character. School authorities have a
responsibility to develop and preserve a learning environment in schools (Chapter 4, Texas
Education Code, 2004). Conduct codes that include appropriate disciplinary measures and due
process procedures should be developed and administered to address the mission of schools,
especially to ensure a campus atmosphere conducive to teaching and learning (McCardy, 1998).
Discipline applied fairly and appropriately, can positively sway character development and craft
an environment of safety in the school community (Feldman, 2000). As such, there is a need for
educational reform of zero tolerance policies in school disciplinary management procedures. A
postmodernism approach is an option with a critical mind-set toward knowledge and behavior.
Zero tolerance policies are rigid mandates of preset consequences for specific student
misconduct. Common sense and fairness are not necessarily served by the use of rigid
disciplinary rules that do not address the circumstances of particular situations. According to
Kritsonis (2009) unless rules are enforced, they lose their influence as behavior guides. School
administrators encounter practical and legal difficulty when they inconsistently enforce rules.
This does not mean that a “zero tolerance” policy is the only way to go; the application of “zero
tolerance” policies has led to some embarrassing situations for school administrators (Kritsonis,
lecture notes, fall 2009).
In the post modern era discipline is not reacting to bad behavior but mostly what you do
to encourage good behavior that will develop inner controls that last a lifetime. Discipline is
based on building the right relationship with a learner more than using the right technique.
Discipline is everything you put into children that influences how they turn out which includes
sensitivity , sense of humor , confidence and solid self-esteem , ability to focus on goals ,
wisdom to make right choices , honesty, integrity , ability to form intimate relationships , healthy
sexuality , respect for authority peers, environment and property, a sense of responsibility ,
skills to solve problems and a desire to learn (Sears, 2005).
The purpose of this article is to describe how meaningful disciplinary management and school-
widediscipline could be achieved with interventions for all students and targeted interventions
for students who exhibit the most severe problem behaviors without zero-tolerance approaches
but rather a paradigm shift in discipline education skewed by postmodernism.
Discipline and Postmodernism
A postmodern epistemology on non zero-tolerance disciplinary insight requires a
radical paradigm shift but will bring epistemological, methodological, and dogmatic issues to the
fore on how we set rules and discipline in our schools and who if any is left at risk. We know in
a postmodern era that greater student misbehavior relates only to increased use of aggressive
strategies. In a study of 21 elementary and 21 secondary schools, teachers are seen by students
to react to classroom misbehavior by increasing their use of coercive discipline, which inhibits
the development of responsibility in students and distracts them resulting in more rowdiness.
Unfortunately, teachers fail to increase their use of more productive techniques, such as
discussions, rewards for good behavior and involvement in decision-making (Lewis, 2001).
For the purpose of this article disruptive behaviour can be viewed using the following
five categories: aggressive and violent behaviour (e.g. hitting, wounding, injuring, pulling hair,
kicking, pushing, using abusive language); physically disruptive behaviour (e.g. smashing or
damaging or defacing objects, throwing objects, physically annoying other pupils); socially
disruptive behaviour (e.g. screaming, running away, exhibiting temper tantrums); authority-
challenging behaviour (e.g. refusing to carry out requests, exhibiting defiant verbal and non-
verbal behaviour, using pejorative language) and self-disruptive behaviour (e.g. day-dreaming,
reading comics under the desk, (which although not disruptive to the teacher or other pupils,
interfere considerably with the pupil’s academic attainments) (Sears, 2005).
It is reasonable to assume that sound student-discipline practices and methods of
alleviating deviant behavior are grounded in a sound philosophy. Developing individual locus of
control through comprehensive methods is a proactive approach to encouraging behavior
modification in or outside the school building. This approach is consonant with the philosophy
espoused by pragmatists such as John Dewey and several scholars of motivational theory.
Discipline: Laws and Regulations
The most widespread authority for overseeing student discipline is a locally adopted discipline
management plan, sometimes called a student code of conduct or a disciplinary code. Such plans
are governed by and frequently are a meld of federal, state, and local laws, together with local
school district policy. For example, the Texas Education Code (TEC) 37.001 requires school
boards of public schools to develop a student code of conduct that specifies misconduct and
corresponding consequences (Chapter 37, Texas Education Code, 2004). The same chapter in the
Texas code mandates certain consequences for certain misconduct, but also allows local districts
to determine consequences for other misconduct within certain parameters.
Thus, the required disciplinary code will encompass both state law and local policy.
School disciplinary systems that include mandatory disciplinary consequences should temper the
harshness of such mandates by allowing discretion in administering the discipline. The Texas
Legislature embraced this concept by mandating expulsion for certain misconduct [TEC
37.007(a)], but giving the chief administrative officer of the local district the discretion to set the
period of expulsion [TEC 37.007 (eXl)l (Chapter 37, Texas Education Code 2004).The
disciplinary management plan should also address Fourteenth Amendment due process issues.
In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case Goss v. Lopez set the bar for when
removal from the educational setting as a disciplinary measure infringes on a student's substan-
tive due process property and liberty rights to the degree that the procedural due process right to
a hearing is required prior to the administration of the discipline measure. The court stated: The
total exclusion from the educational process for more than a trivial period, and certainly if the
suspension is fourteen days, is a serious event in the life of the suspended child. Neither the
property interest in educational benefits temporarily denied nor the liberty interest in reputation,
which is also implicated, is so insubstantial that suspensions may constitutionally be imposed by
any procedure the school chooses, no matter how arbitrary (Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 1975).
At the very minimum, therefore, students facing suspensions and the consequent
interference with a protected property interest must be given some kind of notice and afforded
some kind of hearing (Kajs, 2006). When an application of a zero tolerance policy produces an
overly harsh result, arguably the policy is irrational and therefore a violation of procedural due
process. Further, zero tolerance policies that by definition disallow mitigating factors in
determining discipline may create an irrefutable presumption, also a violation of procedural due
process (Alexander & Alexander, 2005).
While laws and regulations exist to address school discipline, there is a trend to
impose zero tolerance disciplinary policies, thereby impeding the application of administrator
discretion to student infractions. Consequently, zero tolerance policies can seriously restrict the
appropriateness of the punishment to the offense (Black, 2004).
Discipline and student with disabilities
Functional behavioral assessment (FBA) of aggressive and negative behaviors that lead
to suspension and expulsion is mandated for students with disabilities in the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1997. Prior federal legislation (i.e., Public Law 94-142)
sought to ensure that students with disabilities receive a "free and appropriate public education"
(FAPE) in the "least restrictive environment" (LRE). With the IDEA '97 comes a shift from
accessibility of general education classroom placement to account-ability of academic instruction
and accountability for positive behavioral interventions, strategies and support (Hendrickson,
Gable, Conroy, Fox, Smith, 1999).
Thus, a major goal is to assure that instruction of students with disabilities produces
positive academic and behavioral outcomes. Other noteworthy changes include the expectation
that IEP teams reference student objectives to the curriculum of the general education classroom,
that general educators participate in the IEP process, and that once a student with a disability is
14 years old his individualized education program (IEP) must contain a transition plan. For
students with emotional and/or behavioral disorders (EBD), the most dramatic change in IDEA
'97 may be the stipulation that schools address the relationship between problem behavior and
the classroom learning environment. This is to be accomplished through functional behavioral
assessment (FBA), behavioral planning as a component of the IEP process, and the establishment
of positive behavioral intervention plans and supports (Hendrickson & Gable et al., 1999).
Accordingly, the expected competencies of IEP teams as specified in IDEA'97
span several areas: functional behavioral assessments, behavioral intervention planning,
documentation of the appropriateness of programs, manifest determinations (whether a behavior
is linked to student's disability), and the identification of alternative educational settings when
needed (Smith, 1998). With the requirement of FBA, education personnel can no longer simply
attempt to suppress unacceptable student behavior. Now they are expected to determine "why"
the student is motivated to engage in that behavior (Gable et al., 1999). Based on knowledge of
the function(s) of behavior, IEP teams must design programs to reduce future occurrences of the
behavior while teaching the student more socially acceptable replacement behaviors--behaviors
that in some way serve the same functions as the challenging behavior but do so in a more
acceptable fashion (Hendrickson, Gable et al., 1999).
According to IDEA '97, schools must introduce FBA to address serious and persistent
student problems, behavior that involves drugs or weapons or that represents a physical danger to
the student or others. In many cases, standard disciplinary practices may fail to eliminate the
problem behavior or may even exacerbate it, substantiating the need for an FBA. Unfortunately,
such assessment can be a complex and time-consuming proposition (Conroy et al. 1999). Therein
lies a major test, namely, how to muster support for a mandated policy, FBA, that is antithetical
to the current discipline practices (e.g., quick and efficient suspension, expulsion for serious or
zero tolerance behaviors) of most local education agencies.
Where can the change begin?
The problem of disruptive behaviour in schools may have been around for some time, but
it has recently resurfaced as a major social, political and legislative issue. As public concern has
risen, so have expectations that this problem area should be managed more effectively by school
staff. Marzano (2003) posits that schools must also give teachers time to analyze and discuss
state and district curriculum documents. More important, teacher conversations must quickly
move beyond “What are we expected to teach?” to “How will we know when each student has
learned?” (DuFour 2004).
School officials needto implement family and community involvement activities to
reduce the number of disciplinary actions and to ensure a school climate focused on learning.
Using longitudinal data from elementary and secondary schools, analysts indicate that regardless
of schools’ prior rates of discipline, the more family and community involvement activities were
implemented, the fewer students were disciplined by being sent to principals’ offices or given
detention or in-school suspension. Activities for two types of involvement, parenting and
volunteering, were most predictive of reducing the percentages of students who were subject to
discipline. Also, schools that improved the quality of their partnership programs reported fewer
students in need of discipline. The results suggest that creating more connections and greater
cooperation among the school, family, and community contexts may be one way for schools to
improve student behavior and school discipline (DuFour 2004).
Postmodernism embraces leadership that is committed to a just and equitable
school. Schools are not just bureaucracies but places of character building for the different social
and cultural groups whose children are educated there. If schools are places of possibility rather
than merely preservers of the status quo, then leaders must immerse their institutions in social
and cultural change as Kent State Professor James Henderson suggests. He purports that it is the
school’s responsibility to work for the empowerment for all, while advancing a wholesome and
holistic environment (Henderson & Kesson 1999).
A postmodern approach will replace dumbing down curriculums and replace it with one
immersed in pragmatic constructivism as an embrace to good discipline. Postmodernism requires
high teacher efficacy to reach all children without teaching to low expectation. Postmodern
leadership must address the need of the ‘whole’ child because a good principal may well be the
only or last chance many of them may have. Post modern implementations do not just lead
through structures and systems, but enroll the entire school community to ‘feel’ the leadership.
A postmodern approach helps students build better critical thinking skills because
of the constructivism approach to pedagogy. Critical literacy reinforces students’ awareness,
social justice, discipline, responsible citizenship, and a reasoned template for problem solving
and conflict resolution. Postmodernism can help students examine their underlying views about
subjectivity, the good life, and ethics, and how these views ultimately sustain their youthful
investment in purposed learning and good behavior. Postmodernism helps students to avoid
ethnocentrism, to think globally, and to become more culturally competent and resilient people.
In conclusion, based on the increasing incidents of violent behavior in schools, educators
are being asked to make schools safer. Schools receive little guidance or assistance in their
attempts to maintain proactive discipline systems. One area of need lies in direction for use of
existing discipline information to improve school-wide behavior support. The applications of
fairness and consistency cannot be overstated in the disciplinary process and the need for
educational reform in school disciplinary management procedures.
In developing zero tolerance provisions in their student discipline management plans,
school districts exclude pertinent explanations and common sense solutions to address student
infractions. Zero tolerance decisions can have serious consequences, in particular for first-time
offenders—consequences that impair academic progress, reputation, career opportunities, and
emotional development especially with regard to trust in the educational system. Administrator
discretion in the application of disciplinary actions can better address many circumstances.
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