School and district level zero tolerance policies

Zero tolerance (ZT) policies require school officials to apply predetermined consequences for certain infractions, regardless of situational context or circumstances. Consequences are usually severe, such as suspension or expulsion (). Federal law mandates student expulsion for firearm possession; many schools and districts implement additional zero tolerance policies focused on offenses such as tobacco, alcohol, or drug use, knife possession (), fighting, disobedience, disrespect, truancy, or class disruption (). According to the US Department of Education, schools assign most suspensions for nonviolent, minor interruptions such as tardiness or disrespect (US ED-School climate 2014).

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is some evidence that school and district level zero tolerance (ZT) policies increase student suspension and expulsion rates (APA 2008Boccanfuso 2011, ), but do not improve learning environments, school climate, or perceptions of school safety (, APA 2008). Available evidence suggests ZT policies reduce academic achievement, increase poor behavior and the likelihood of future suspensions and expulsions, and may negatively affect future earnings and employment prospects (, APA 2008).

Suspension and expulsion rates vary among schools. Schools with high percentages of minority students and students from highly disadvantaged backgrounds generally have higher suspension and expulsion rates than other schools (APA 2008, Sartain 2015). Students with disabilities and minority students, especially black students, are suspended or expelled more often than their peers (US ED-School climate 2014Boccanfuso 2011). Rates of school disruption or violence do not appear higher among black students than other students (APA 2008). Students with the lowest incoming academic achievement, from the lowest income neighborhoods, or who are victims of abuse or neglect are also more likely to be suspended than peers without such risk factors (Sartain 2015).

School staff have been shown to use discretion to determine which behaviors are addressed through zero tolerance (). In one mid-size urban district, ZT expansion was associated with a doubled suspension rate for black students while suspension rates for white and Hispanic students remained statistically unchanged (). Zero tolerance policies for unexcused absences appear to be disproportionately applied to students who are already failing; the majority of these students also receive free or reduced lunch and have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) ().

Surveys indicate that zero tolerance policies are not associated with feeling safer at school, satisfaction with school governance, or staff spending less time on discipline (APA 2008). Overall, suspension and expulsion are associated with low academic achievement (APA 2008), increased dropout, and reduced on-time high school graduation (APA 2008US ED-School climate 2014, , Kang-Brown 2013). Suspension may also lead to more behavior offenses in school (APA 2008) and juvenile delinquency (US ED-School climate 2014Borgwald 2012Martinez 2009). High levels of exclusionary discipline, as seen in schools with zero tolerance policies, can negatively influence academic achievement for suspended and non-suspended students ().

Researchers suggest that ZT policies are not cost effective, as they are associated with poor student outcomes, may increase use of the juvenile justice system (APA 2008), and may disregard students’ rights to proportional punishment and due process (Lowenstein 2008, Black 2015). Experts recommend strict scrutiny of school exclusion decisions, and possibly state level reforms of such policies (Black 2016). Schools can replace zero tolerance policies with strategies that have been shown to improve school climate and student behavior such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and social and emotional instruction (US ED-School climate 2014, APA 2008). 

Impact on Disparities

Likely to increase disparities

Implementation Examples

As of 2008, zero tolerance (ZT) policies appear widespread in American schools (APA 2008). Starting in 2009, several states passed laws to revise zero tolerance policies in schools, including Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island (NCSL-ZT reform 2012, RW-Colorado bill). Cities, school districts, and schools are also replacing ZT policies with more flexible disciplinary codes and more restorative, supportive practices, as in Denver, CO; Buffalo, NY; Broward County, FL (NSBA-Reversing ZT); Chicago, IL (Sartain 2015); and Philadelphia, PA (PPS-Hardy 2014).

Many national organizations oppose ZT policies and support policy reforms, for example, the American Bar Association (ABA-ZT) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU-ZT).

Implementation Resources

US ED-School climate 2014 - US Department of Education (US ED). Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline; 2014.

AIR-School discipline - American Institutes for Research (AIR). School discipline.

Citations - Evidence

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Hoffman 2014* - Hoffman S. Zero benefit: Estimating the effect of zero tolerance discipline polices on racial disparities in school discipline. Educational Policy. 2014;28(1), 69-95.

APA 2008 - American Psychological Association (APA) Zero Tolerance Task Force. Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist. 2008;63(9), 852-62.

Borgwald 2012 - Borgwald K, Theixos H. Bullying the bully: Why zero-tolerance policies get a failing grade. Social Influence. 2013;8(2-3), 149-160.

Martinez 2009 - Martinez S. A system gone berserk: How are zero-tolerance policies really affecting schools? Preventing School Failure. 2009;53(3), 153-158.

US ED-School climate 2014 - US Department of Education (US ED). Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline; 2014.

Welch 2012* - Welch K, Payne A. Exclusionary school punishment: The effect of racial threat on expulsion and suspension. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice. 2011;10(2):155-171.

Boccanfuso 2011 - Boccanfuso C,  Kuhfeld M. Multiple responses, promising results: Evidence-based, nonpunitive alternatives to zero tolerance. Washington DC: Child Trends; 2011.

Lowenstein 2008 - Lowenstein AK. Dignity denied: The effect of 'zero tolerance' policies on students' human rights. New Haven: International Human Rights Clinic, Yale Law School; 2008.

Skiba 2014* - Skiba RJ. The failure of zero tolerance. Reclaiming Children & Youth. 2014;22(4):27.

Kang-Brown 2013 - Kang-Brown J, Trone J, Fratello J, Daftary-Kapur T. Generation later: What we’ve learned about zero tolerance in schools. New York: Vera Institute of Justice; 2013.

Sartain 2015 - Sartain L, Allensworth EM, Porter S, et al. Suspending Chicago's students: Differences in discipline practices across schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research; 2015.

Heilbrun 2015* - Heilbrun A, Cornell D, Lovegrove P. Principal attitudes regarding zero tolerance and racial disparities in school suspensions. Psychology in the Schools. 2015;52(5):489-499.

Perry 2014* - Perry BL, Morris EW. Suspending progress: Collateral consequences of exclusionary punishment in public schools. American Sociological Review. 2014;79(6):1067-1087.

Gage 2013* - Gage NA, Sugai G, Lunde K, DeLoreto L. Truancy and zero tolerance in high school: Does policy align with practice? Education & Treatment of Children. 2013;36(2):117.

Black 2015 - Black D. The constitutional limit of zero tolerance in schools. Minnesota Law Review. 2015;99(3):823-904.

Black 2016 - Black DW. Reforming school discipline. Northwestern University Law Review (Forthcoming). 2016:1-50.

Citations - Implementation Examples

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APA 2008 - American Psychological Association (APA) Zero Tolerance Task Force. Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist. 2008;63(9), 852-62.

Sartain 2015 - Sartain L, Allensworth EM, Porter S, et al. Suspending Chicago's students: Differences in discipline practices across schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research; 2015.

NCSL-ZT reform 2012 - National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). What states are reconsidering their zero tolerance policies in schools for weapons and/or drugs? December 2012.

NSBA-Reversing ZT - National School Boards Association (NSBA). Schools reversing zero tolerance policies.

RW-Colorado bill - Restorative Works Learning Network (RW), Restorative Practices Foundation. Colorado bill ends zero tolerance in schools.

PPS-Hardy 2014 - Hardy D. Philadelphia's shift in discipline policy. Philadelphia Public School (PPS) The Notebook. 2014.

ABA-ZT - American Bar Association (ABA), Center on Children and the Law. School discipline 'Zero Tolerance' policies.

ACLU-ZT - American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). School-to-prison pipeline and zero tolerance policies.

Date Last Updated

May 10, 2016