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Last modified: Thursday, July 15, 2004

Indiana schools looking for alternatives to failed zero tolerance policies

Maintaining discipline while maximizing educational opportunities

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University in Bloomington and the Indiana Youth Services Association are releasing major new findings on out-of-school suspension, expulsion and disciplinary alternatives in Indiana in an effort to contribute to a statewide dialogue on school discipline.

This week the project, Children Left Behind, released a set of three briefing papers focusing on the extent to which school exclusion is effective or necessary in maintaining safe and productive school climates. While schools must make every effort to ensure safe school climates, the findings of the CLB project reveal that out-of-school suspension and expulsion do not appear to contribute to that goal.

Key findings of the project include:

  • At the national level, higher rates of out-of-school suspensions are associated with poorer school climate, higher dropout rates and lower achievement.
  • Indiana schools with higher rates of out-of-school suspensions have lower average passing rates on ISTEP, the state's standardized test of achievement, and there is evidence of minority overrepresentation in both suspension and expulsion.
  • Perhaps most importantly, alternative options are available. Indiana principals are using a variety of innovative disciplinary strategies that can maintain school discipline and maximize educational opportunities.

CLB policy papers were distributed in recent days to thousands of legislators and professionals in the fields of education and juvenile justice including principals, superintendents, probation officers and judges. The purpose of the project is to create a meaningful dialogue, especially between education and juvenile justice professionals, on the most effective methods of school discipline.

"The innovative programs and strategies of Indiana's principals clearly show that there is no inherent conflict between school safety and keeping all children engaged in school," said Russell Skiba, professor of education at Indiana University and project co-director. "We can do both, and the data suggest that the schools that do both are, in fact, most effective."

According to Skiba, a nationally recognized scholar on issues of school safety and discipline, Indiana's high rate of school expulsions and out-of-school suspensions merits a closer look at the effectiveness of those procedures. According to the most recently available statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, Indiana has the highest per capita rate of school expulsion in the nation and the ninth-highest out-of-school suspension rate.

"Schools are under tremendous pressure to maintain safety and to maximize learning. There are clearly cases where students will need to be removed from school for some period of time in order to preserve their safety and the safety of others," Skiba said. "But when procedures are used so frequently, we need to examine whether they really work in terms of the larger goal of maintaining a safe and productive learning climate."

Jim Killen, director of the Indiana Youth Services Association, said it is important for this discussion to involve professionals from the schools and from juvenile justice because both play an important role in addressing the juvenile delinquency that occurs within school and in the community. "Many of Indiana's communities are beginning to realize that removing students from school allows them to go unsupervised into the community and places those children at grave risk for delinquent activity," said Killen. "That, in turn, places our communities at risk for higher rates of juvenile crime."

Daniel Losen, a legal and policy research associate at the Harvard Civil Rights Project, described the project's findings as consistent with the national data. "The really good news is there are folks in Indiana -- principals -- who are getting it right and doing a wonderful job with whatever resources are at their disposal," Losen said. "It's not an intractable problem. There's a lot that can be done."

The Children Left Behind series concludes with a set of recommendations for replacing zero tolerance with more effective approaches to maintaining safety and discipline, and especially for increasing available options that address issues of student behavior. "The good news from these papers is that it is possible to do discipline differently," said Killen. "But making schools safe is not resource-free. Our schools and communities need the best available tools in order to guarantee that Indiana's children are educated in the safest and most effective schools."

Children Left Behind is a collaborative project with the Indiana Youth Services Association and supported in part by funding from the Lilly Endowment.

The complete series and supplemental material can be found at

To speak with Skiba, contact Tracy James at 812-855-0084 or Jim Killen can be contacted at the Indiana Youth Services Association at 866-888-4972.