School and district level zero tolerance policies

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Evidence of Ineffectiveness

Strategies with this rating are not good investments. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently negative and sometimes harmful results.


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Disparity Rating  
Disparity rating: Potential to increase disparities

Strategies with this rating have the potential to increase or exacerbate disparities between subgroups. Rating is suggested by evidence, expert opinion or strategy design.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated

Zero tolerance 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 expulsion1. 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 possession2, fighting, disobedience, disrespect, truancy, or class disruption3.

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is strong evidence that school and district level zero tolerance policies increase student suspension and expulsion rates4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and negatively affect learning environments, school climate, and perceptions of school safety6, 9, 10. Zero tolerance policies reduce academic achievement, increase poor behavior and the likelihood of future suspensions and expulsions, increase student involvement with the juvenile justice system, and may negatively affect future earnings and employment prospects6, 9, 10, 11. Evidence links punitive school discipline to greater risks for negative outcomes such as depression, antisocial behavior, injuries, and death by suicide12.

Experts recommend abolishing zero tolerance policies, reviewing discipline policies with community members, setting limits on exclusionary discipline, and using safety assessments to investigate threats of violence9, 13, 14. Experts also recommend investing in preventive and supportive approaches such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), social emotional learning, universal screening for unmet needs, restorative practices, implicit bias training for staff, and culturally responsive instructional practices9, 14. Evidence suggests that school-based interventions that focus on improving student academic skills, counselling or mentoring students, or skills training for teachers may decrease rates of exclusionary discipline15.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated potential to increase disparities: supported by strong evidence.

There is strong evidence that zero tolerance policies increase disparities in exclusionary discipline between students who are Black and students who are white4, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14. Zero tolerance policies disproportionately increase rates of exclusionary discipline for students who are Black4, 5. Students with disabilities, students who are not heterosexual, students with lower socio-economic status backgrounds, and students experiencing intergenerational poverty also experience higher rates of exclusionary discipline than their peers10, 14, 16.

Research suggests that disparities in exclusionary discipline are driven by multiple factors, including administrator and staff attitudes and discretion, student characteristics, and student behavior14. School staff have been shown to use discretion to determine which behaviors are addressed through zero tolerance17. Evidence also suggests that school staff use discretion in non-exclusionary discipline, with Black students receiving fewer warnings about their behavior18.

Evidence suggests that punitive school discipline such as suspensions, expulsions, and detention may be especially harmful to the mental health of Black students12.

What is the relevant historical background?

U.S. federal anti-drug policy of the 1980s led to a surge in harshly punitive school discipline policies in the 1990s and 2000s19, 20. In 1994 the Gun Free Schools Act (GFSA) was enacted under the Clinton Administration. The GFSA requires one-year expulsions for students who bring a gun to school, but districts can modify expulsions on an individual basis9. While the GFSA was intended to create safer educational environments, it shifted school discipline towards broader zero tolerance approaches for a variety of student misbehaviors that have been shown to harm students, especially those with minoritized identities21, 22.

Research found that zero tolerance policies severely harm Black students, other students of color, and students with disabilities and do not significantly improve school safety4, 6. In response, the Obama Administration issued a Dear Colleague Letter in 2014 that included detailed guidance for protecting student civil rights and schools moved towards more lenient policies19, 23. Recently, schools have struggled with a sharp increase in student behavior concerns after extended school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic24 and schools have begun trending back towards stricter discipline policies19. However, many national organizations continue to oppose harsh zero tolerance policies, such as the American Bar Association25 and the American Civil Liberties Union26.

Equity Considerations
  • How are student discipline policies enforced in your district or school? Who has a voice in the student discipline process?
  • What training is available for staff around student discipline and implicit bias?
  • What preventive or supportive approaches does your district or school already take for students? What additional preventive or supportive strategies can your district or school implement?

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1 Teske 2011 - Teske SC. A study of zero tolerance policies in schools: A multi-integrated systems approach to improve outcomes for adolescents. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing. 2011;24(2):88-97.

2 Brookings-Perera 2023b - Perera RM, Diliberti MK. Survey: Understanding how U.S. public schools approach school discipline. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2023.

3 Monahan 2014 - Monahan K, VanDerhei S, Bechtold J, Cauffman E. From the school yard to the squad car: School discipline, truancy, and arrest. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 2014;43(7):1110-1122.

4 Curran 2016 - Curran FC. Estimating the effect of state zero tolerance laws on exclusionary discipline, racial discipline gaps, and student behavior. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 2016;38(4):647-668.

5 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.

6 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.

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

8 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.

9 Santiago-Rosario 2023 - Santiago-Rosario MR, Austin SC, Izzard S, et al. Zero tolerance: Effects, bias, and more effective strategies for improving school safety. Preventing School Failure. 2023.

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

11 Welsh 2018a - Welsh RO, Little S. Caste and control in schools: A systematic review of the pathways, rates and correlates of exclusion due to school discipline. Children and Youth Services Review. 2018;94:315-339.

12 Duarte 2023 - Duarte CdP, Moses C, Brown M, et al. Punitive school discipline as a mechanism of structural marginalization with implications for health inequity: A systematic review of quantitative studies in the health and social sciences literature. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2023;1519(1):129-152.

13 Green 2021 - Green AL, Hatton H, Stegenga SM, Eliason B, Nese RNT. Examining commitment to prevention, equity, and meaningful engagement: A review of school district discipline policies. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions. 2021;23(3):137-148.

14 Welsh 2018 - Welsh RO, Little S. The school discipline dilemma: A comprehensive review of disparities and alternative approaches. Review of Educational Research. 2018;88(5):752-794.

15 Campbell-Valdebenito 2018 - Valdebenito S, Eisner M, Farrington DP, Ttofi MM, Sutherland A. School‐based interventions for reducing disciplinary school exclusion: A systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews. 2018;14(1).

16 Shooter 2023 - Shooter W, Hernandez J, Mackay D, McIlvenna M. The relationship of intergenerational poverty and exclusionary school discipline. Psychology in the Schools. 2023;60(6):1760-1780.

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

18 Wegmann 2019 - Wegmann KM, Smith B. Examining racial/ethnic disparities in school discipline in the context of student-reported behavior infractions. Children and Youth Services Review. 2019;103:18-27.

19 Brookings-Perera 2023 - Perera RM, Diliberti MK. What does the research say about how to reduce misbehavior in schools? Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2023.

20 US ED-Skiba 2000 - Skiba RJ. Zero tolerance, zero evidence: An analysis of school disciplinary practice. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED), Indiana University Education Policy Center; 2000.

21 Irby 2021 - Irby DJ, Coney K. The 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act: Its effects 25 years later and how to undo them. Peabody Journal of Education. 2021;96(5):494-507

22 Mongan 2012 - Mongan P, Walker R. 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions': A historical, theoretical, and legal analysis of zero-tolerance weapons policies in American schools. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth. 2012;56(4):232-240.

23 Brookings-Perera 2023a - Perera RM, Valant J. The Biden administration’s updated school discipline guidelines fail to meet the moment. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2023.

24 Belsha 2021 - Belsha K. Stress and short tempers: Schools struggle with behavior as students return. Chalkbeat: Essential education reporting across America. 2021.

25 ABA-ZT 2023 - American Bar Association (ABA). Zero-tolerance polices and the use of suspensions and expulsions for non-violent offenses, due process before point of separation. 2023.

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