National Pulse

Legislators take aim at zero tolerance school policies

  • Print.

It’s not hard to find extreme examples of overreaction. A one-size-fits-all approach to discipline can convert zero tolerance into zero judgment.

“Schoolteachers and administrators are legally constrained by a zero tolerance approach,” Schor says. “If a student brings a butter knife to school to put peanut butter on a sandwich, it counts as possessing a knife. Regardless of the intent or actual threat level, the student faces suspension or worse.”

Kavitha Mediratta, executive director of the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity program based at Columbia University, has examined what she terms the “racially biased effects of zero tolerance school disciplinary policies” on children’s education.

“Eliminating disparities will require much more attention to their root causes,” Mediratta says. “School systems need to train administrators and staff on implicit bias and take steps to make sure all schools have access to preventative mental health and behavioral services for their students.”

“The spate of recent zero tolerance legislation is part and parcel of a broader cultural shift over the thinking about criminal justice and punishment in society,” says Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “Zero tolerance arose in the time when get-tough criminal justice policies were in vogue, such as the broken windows policing strategy in New York City.”

And it was all the rage in the 1990s with the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. The federal law was passed in response to a rise in school violence. Intolerance to weapons often extended to other facets of discipline, including clamping down on any violent-themed student speech.

While zero tolerance policies had their supporters, many became worried about inconsistent application and overly harsh results. As far back as February 2001, the American Bar Association passed a resolution opposing zero tolerance policies with a discriminatory effect.

One of the most persistent criticisms of the policies involves racial disparities. Many studies have found racial biases in schools’ exclusionary discipline policies.

“There are a multitude of intersecting school-based factors that impact racial disproportionately,” says Dorothy Hines-Datiri, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas and co-author of “The Effects of Zero Tolerance Policies on Black Girls,” a paper published in February in the journal Urban Education. Hines-Datiri cites racism, teacher bias, institutionalized racial exclusion and a mindset that treats black and brown children worse than white kids.

Hines-Datiri says her study found black girls were punished disproportionately for behavior issues compared to white girls—even for similar infractions.

“Now, there is a sense among many that zero tolerance policies have racial disparities and are a result of some teacher bias,” Eden says. “It is fair to assume that some aspects of disparities in school discipline are a result of teacher bias, but the recent movement has gone above and beyond.”

Some worry that the pushback against racial disparities, an admitted problem, may be fueled in part by a political agenda. “While there are very legitimate concerns with questionable suspensions, expulsions and arrests, there is also a racial and political undercurrent involved with the school-to-prison pipeline movement,” says Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a private consultancy.

Safety Concerns

While there is little support for inflexible zero tolerance policies, some say that the pendulum may have swung too far, and that limiting certain forms of exclusionary discipline could make schools less safe.

“To limit the option of exclusionary discipline and expulsions has tied teachers’ hands and has had negative consequences in the classrooms,” says Eden, who authored the report School Discipline Reform and Disorder: Evidence from New York City Public Schools 2012-16. “There is evidence in New York City and in some other cities that such policies were associated with a reduction in safety.”

Further, any attempt to reduce racial disparities and lessen the number of serious exclusionary disciplines must take into account that some students will commit actions that necessitate swift punishment. “There are differences between student conflicts that fall into traditional disputes mediated and sanctioned with disciplinary consequences versus violent, aggressive assaults leaving students or staff with serious injuries,” Trump says.

Some contend that school officials need flexibility regarding school discipline issues. A one-size-fits-all punishment does not work except for the obvious cases of when someone brings a loaded gun to school or commits a serious act of a violent or sexual nature.

Experts stress the need for alternative forms of classroom management, engagement and discipline. “I advocate for a multi-prong strategy that seeks to reduce misbehavior on the front end,” says Black. “This includes the provision of quality and engaging academic opportunities, the necessary staff and services to counsel students who are at risk of misbehavior, and disciplinary systems based on positive behavioral supports and restorative justices.”

With those things in place, Black would prohibit suspension and expulsion for all but the most serious infractions.



Due to an editing error, the print version of “Zeroing In,” December, misquoted Kavitha Mediratta’s description of her work. It should have been described as examining the “racially biased effects of zero tolerance school disciplinary policies” on children’s education.

The Journal regrets the errors.

This article was published in the December 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with the title “Zeroing In: Legislators take aim at zero tolerance school policies."

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.