Education Juvenile Justice LAUSD

Pushed Out: Reforming Zero Tolerance at LAUSD


The concept of Zero Tolerance is alive and well in the Los Angeles Unified School District—and not in a good way.

But a couple of gutsy South LA schools have rejected Zero Tolerance in favor of a more innovative, kid-centered approach, and students are benefiting.

Markham Middle School in South LA has a student population of a little over 1500 kids and is one of those low performing LAUSD schools in that needs a lot of help. In 2010, only 15 percent of Markham’s students scored in the “proficient” range in math. In English, 14.3 percent were proficient. Both those numbers were up from last year’s even lower scores.

Yet it is not Markham’s test scores that are the most unsettling. Its record for disciplining its students that has produced the most alarming stats

In 2009, when the school had a student population of 1505, it issued 935 student suspensions.

In other words, if each suspension corresponded with a single kid, that would mean that 62 percent of Markham’s student body got suspended during the 2009 school year.

Samuel Gompers Middle School, which is a few miles away from Markham, was nearly as bad. With an enrollment of 1623 students in 2009, they had 913 suspensions–or 56.2 percent of the student body.

In addition, both schools had a higher than average number of expulsions and what are called OTs—Opportunity Transfers.

OTs are a disciplinary tool that most parents have never heard of. It is what administrators do when they want to get rid of a student, but they have no legal grounds to expel him or her. The California Constitution guarantees every kid an education, thus the rules governing expulsion are fairly strict. Not so for Opportunity Transfers. School administrators can forcibly transfer a troublesome kid to another school, virtually at will. Kids who are are OTd once, are often bounced around a number of times until they simply decide that, if no school wants them, they don’t want school. And they fall off the radar.

They don’t so much drop out as they are pushed out.

In theory, the point of all this discipline is to make a school safer, keep order on the school grounds, and instill discipline in kids who are misbehaving.

Only one problem: it doesn’t work.

A string of studies in the last ten years—including one by The American Psychological Association—found that, in much the way that overly punitive parenting does more harm than good, zero tolerance was making things worse, not better. It reduced instructional time, brought more students into contact with the justice system, and increased dropout rates when it caused whole groups of kids to fall further and further and further behind until they simply left the system.

In a 2010 report commissioned by a collaboration between nonprofit law firms Public Counsel and Mental Health Advocacy Services, Inc., and CADRE, a South L.A.-based parent group, researchers explained::

Zero tolerance ” is a mere temporary fix that ignores the root causes of the offending behavior, fails to teach students appropriate behavior, and often results in more problems down the road for the student and the school.”

“…. Rather than viewing schools as places where young people should be nurtured, supported, and developed to their full potential, zero tolerance treats students as adversaries or threats to be suppressed or even discarded in the quest for good schools.”


A few blocks away from Gompers and Markham, Thomas Edison Middle School has tried a whole new method of approaching school discipline, and it has made a measurable difference.

“Edison was the school where you didn’t want your kids to go,” says Roslyn Broadnax, a local parent leader. “Now all that’s changed.”

The discipline strategy Edison’s administrators and faculty decided to try out is called School-Wide Positive Behavior Support or SWPBS.

In brief, SWPBS is “an evidence-based approach to improving student behavior and learning outcomes by focusing on behavior modeling, corrective responses, and intensive proactive interventions, and by seeking to decrease the use of aversive and exclusionary punishments, such as class removal and suspension.”

In other words, it treats misbehaving students like kids in need of help and guidance rather than like mini-criminals who must be punished.

The approach worked. Edison’s suspensions fell from 255, before SWPBS to 24 in the 2010 school year. The atmosphere on the campus began to improve too. Even the standardized test scores rose at a faster rate than usual.

Loren Miller Elementary School in the same area also embraced the methodology and had similarly upbeat results.


In 2007, LAUSD was shown all the studies and persuaded to formally adopt School-Wide Positive Behavior Support at all its schools.

Yet, despite the guarantees made by the school board, the implementation mostly didn’t happen.

The exceptions were a few schools in South LA like Edison and Loren Miller.


Edison and Loren Miller and Gompers and Markham are all in LAUSD’s District 7. (LA’s monster district is broken up into multiple local mini-districts of which District 7, which covers most of South Los Angeles, is one.)

Seeing the dramatic changes in the schools that implemented SWPBS, Dr. George McKenna III, the Superintendent for Local District 7 decided his district was going go for the new strategy full throttle.

“Even in a budget crisis,” said McKenna, “this effort shows that schools can work together with the community to increase opportunities for learning and keep children in the classroom.

Laura Faer, Education Rights Director at Public Counsel, agrees. “When you stop the kneejerk reaction of kicking children out of class and out of school and start engaging them and consistently teaching them alternative ways to interact and socialize, amazing things can happen.”

POST SCRIPT: This June the topic will likely heat up when reports about how SWPBS is working will again be on the LAUSD board’s agenda.


  • Most worrisome is the thought that the suspended students will end up in juvenile hall or a probation camp. LAUSD is so dysfunctional that changes only happen after expensive consultants and reports validate failings of the school system.

  • As a counselor with LAUSD, I completely agree that students are not “pushed out” as a solution to their problem behavior. Opportunity transfers merely move the problem somewhere else and do not address the problem. However, I have worked at schools where students have been caught selling drugs, robbing peers, assaulting peers and staff and similar very serious behaviors that put our school community at risk. These behaviors are what puts a student in juvenille hall/CYA camps. They are also often a symptom of a history of dysfunction in the home or trauma the student has experienced. It does not excuse the behavior but does explain. We as a society need to intervene on behalf of children to protect them, counsel them and provide interventions so they make productive choices and not end up part of the criminal justice system. And that takes $ and staffing – something the state does not provide schools at present.

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