Beyond Zero Tolerance: Promising Alternatives in School Discipline


In the 1990s “zero tolerance” approaches, which make heavy use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for often minor infractions, started becoming popular in schools across the country.

In the years since, zero tolerance has proven an ineffective approach to school discipline that disproportionately targets students of color and students with disabilities.

Now many policy makers and educators are taking action to move towards more fair and effective school discipline approaches.

In 2012, Colorado was one of the first states to reform its zero tolerance laws and move away from suspensions. And in January Maryland passed a law aimed at reducing suspensions and allowing long-term suspensions only for students who pose an "imminent threat of serious harm to other students or staff".

The latest voices to speak up are Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder. On January 8th the Departments of Education and Justice jointly released guidance on avoiding discrimination in school discipline.

“The need to rethink and redesign school discipline practices is long overdue.” Sec. Duncan said in a speech. “Too many schools resort too quickly to exclusionary discipline, even for minor misbehaviors.”

The good news is that there are a number of promising alternatives to zero tolerance.

One radically different approach being used with some success is restorative justice, which uses structured peer mediation to address conflicts.

Rather than focusing on the rules that were violated, this approach focuses on the harms that the student’s actions caused. And rather than being told to stay home for a few days, the student must face the effects of their actions on others and come up with a plan to make amends and avoid similar issues in the future proportional to the harm caused.

If properly implemented, the process can help address the deeper issues underlying a discipline incident and serve as an empowering experience for those harmed by the incident.

The PBS NewsHour recently profiled a school in Colorado using Restorative Justice.

Child Trends highlights some other evidence-based alternatives including Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).

Ultimately, having a fair, consistent and effective approach to discipline is essential to ensuring that every student feels safe and respected.

It is only then that real learning can happen.