Is Zero Tolerance Keeping Students Safe?


We’ve often heard heart-breaking stories of students who are targets of bullying turning to adults for help only to watch the school look the other way.

These stories underscore the importance of consistent and effective school discipline policies that ensure that all students feel safe in the classroom.

Since the 1990s schools across the country tried to achieve this with “get tough”  “zero tolerance” approaches that make heavy use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions often for minor infractions.

Unfortunately in the years since it has become clear that this approach is neither consistent nor effective. And the students who are most negatively impacted are students of color and students with disabilities.

Dept. of Education CRDC survey of every public school in the country found that during the 2011-2012 schools year

  • 16% of black students received out-of-school suspensions compared to 5% of white students
  • 13% of students with disabilities received suspensions compared to 6% of students without a disability
  • 31% of students involved in a school-related arrest are black, even though black students represent only 16% of the student population
  • 34% of multi-racial male students with disabilities and 29% of black male students with disabilities received out-of-school suspensions
  • Black students represented 18% of preschool enrollment but 42% of students suspended once, and48% of the students suspended more than once

Part of the problem is that school discipline frequently requires a subjective evaluation of the severity of the offense. In these ambiguous situations a strong body of research suggests that Implicit or unconscious bias can impact who we’re willing to give the benefit of the doubt, how severely we view an offense and what punishment we feel are appropriate for an offense.

You can find a detailed breakdown of suspensions and expulsions at your school or district by searching the CRDC database.

All of this suggests that “zero tolerance” policies are not consistent, but what about effectiveness?

There too a growing body of evidence suggests that taking students out of school as a punishment can cause more problems than it resolves.  

And “zero tolerance” policies have caused often minor discipline issues that would have previously been handled at the school level to be referred to the criminal justice system creating what many have called the “school to prison pipeline”.

Having been left at home (often unsupervised) while their peers are at school, students who are suspended miss out on valuable class time and are more likely to get in trouble, ending up in the juvenile justice system.

In 2008, after an exhaustive review of research on the topic, the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force concluded:

Although it seems intuitive that removing disruptive students from school will make schools better places for those students who remain, or that severe punishment will improve the behavior of the punished student or of those who witness that punishment, the available evidence consistently flies in the face of these beliefs. Zero tolerance has not been shown to improve school climate or school safety. Its application in suspension and expulsion has not proven an effective means of improving student behavior. It has not resolved, and indeed may have exacerbated, minority overrepresentation in school punishments… By changing the relationship between education and juvenile justice, zero tolerance may shift the locus of discipline from relatively inexpensive actions in the school setting to the highly costly processes of arrest and incarceration. In so doing, zero tolerance policies have created unintended consequences for students, families, and communities. (emphasis added)

Now many policy makers and educators including Education Secretary Arne Duncan are taking action to move towards more fair and effective school discipline approaches.

Learn more about the growing movement against zero tolerance and promising alternatives including restorative justice.