Over the last several years, the federal government has been pushing school districts across the country to dial back disciplinary policies under which children are suspended for minor misbehavior that once would have been dealt with in a meeting with parents or though minor sanctions like detention. These “zero tolerance” policies make it more likely that children will drop out, and they are especially damaging to minority students, who are disproportionately subjected to suspension, expulsion or even arrest for nonviolent offenses. Now, colleges that penalize applicants for high school disciplinary records should change their policies as well.
The problem is underscored in an alarming new study by the Center for Community Alternatives, a nonprofit group that focuses on alternatives to incarceration. The study traces the problem to questions on the Common Application, which is used by some 500 colleges and universities. The applicant is asked about his or her disciplinary history, and the high school is asked whether the applicant committed disciplinary violations from ninth grade on that led to probation, suspension, removal, dismissal or expulsion.
During the 1990s, schools began as a matter of course to criminalize adolescent misbehavior — reclassifying mere shoving matches as…
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