Do zero tolerance school policies curb bad behavior?

A new study has further complicated the challenge of discipline in the nation's schools, determining that little correlation exists between zero-tolerance discipline policies and well-behaved students.

The research, published in the Journal of School Psychology, concludes that a young person's family structure, ability to focus and concentrate, and self-reported skill in controlling his or her impulses are better predictors of future criminal activity than disciplinary measures in school.

More than 75 percent of American schools have zero-tolerance policies, which mete out severe punishments for certain offenses, no matter the individual circumstances. (These policies have faced criticism in the past, as when 6-year-old Zachary Christie was suspended in 2009 for bringing a camping utensil to school in Bear, Del. Christie's school revoked his suspension after a public outcry.)

Previous studies have shown that suspended kids are more likely to drop out of school and to eventually join the country's enormous prison population. The study's author, Jennifer Matjasko, a behavioral scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggests that schools may be better able to curb bad behavior by trying to address students' impulse control and attention issues, since they show stronger correlation to criminal behavior than simple acting-out among high school students.

Another study published in the American Educational Research Journal by Rutgers researcher Anne Gregory examined whether the climate of a school has any effect on the national "suspension gap" in American schools. Black students are twice as likely to be suspended than white students nationwide, and the disparity exists even when researchers control for socio-economic status.

Gregory surveyed students in nearly 300 Virginia schools about whether they believed their teachers demanded hard work from them and cared about their well-being, two crucial factors that determine a school's climate.

The study found that suspension rates were highest in schools where students reported that their teachers did not care about them or demand good work from them in school. These schools--called "indifferent" in the study--also had a higher gap between white and black suspension rates.

The researchers are careful to note that they were unable to prove causation between suspension rates and supportive school climates. But they say the findings suggest schools with student behavior problems should consider ways to improve their school climate.

The studies come out on the heels of the Department of Education's announcement that it's starting a new program to encourage schools to suspend fewer students. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he was "concerned" about disparities in discipline in schools, while Attorney General Eric Holder said a study that revealed 60 percent of Texan students are suspended or expelled at least once was a "wake up call" for the education system.