Protecting the Bill of Rights in Utah since 1958

Zero-Tolerance = Zero Sense, Students Need Better

03 November 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

Zero-tolerance policies are a fundamental component of the School-to-Prison pipeline and lead to suspensions, expulsions, and sometimes arrests-for minor misbehavior.

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Zero-tolerance policies are a fundamental component of the School-to-Prison pipeline. They lead to suspensions and expulsions-sometimes arrests-for minor misbehavior that does not pose a school safety concern. Thereby, contributing to the surprising statistics reported by the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) Discipline Snapshot from March 2014: nationally, in the 2011-2012 school year, there were 3.5 million students in in-school suspension, 1.9 million students in single out –of-school- suspension, 1.55 million students with multiple out-of-school suspensions, and 130,000 expelled students (US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights).

Zero-tolerance policies can be defined as disciplinary policies that use suspension or expulsion on the first offense for a wide variety of misbehaviors. Students are harshly punished for vague infractions, such as disrespect. The scope and definition of zero-tolerance infractions vary widely from school to school across the nation and the state of Utah. These policies do not take the harm and severity of the misbehavior into account when dispensing punishment. Although, zero-tolerance policies are used for multiple behaviors, they were originally used for firearms in schools. In the 1990’s, under the Clinton Administration, the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 was enacted (American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force). It mandated expulsion of students if they brought a firearm to school, and referral to the criminal or juvenile justice system. As time passed, the law was amended to include other weapons. Schools have taken it upon themselves to use zero-tolerance policies with students who did bring a weapon to school. Schools across the country continued to expand the list of applications of zero-tolerance to include drug and alcohol possession, fighting, threats, and swearing, among others (American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force).

The goals of using zero-tolerance polices were to better school safety and deter others from misbehaving. However, there is no evidence of increased overall safety or improving student behavior due to zero-tolerance polices (Russell). Instead, suspensions have been found to be associated with negative results:

Research has found suspensions to be associated with increased risk for grade retention, dropping out, and juvenile justice involvement, as well as increases in crime and welfare costs associated with school dropout (Losen, Hewitt and Todson).

From hurting the school climate, being correlated with less academic achievement, to pushing students out of school, creating troubling graduation rates, zero-tolerance policies fail at its goals and cause new problems (Bickel and Quals).

Often zero-tolerance polices punishes behavior that if committed by a child out of the school context, would not normally be disciplined. For example, as reported in St. Petersburg Times in 2001, a 10-year old girl found a small knife, put there by her mother, in her lunchbox that was meant to cut an apple. The young girl then gave her teacher the knife and was expelled for possessing a weapon. The most well behaved of students are going to have bad days where they do something they should not have or make entirely innocent mistakes. Students’ behavior should not be looked with an assumption of criminality.

Normal child and adolescent misbehavior must also be taken into consideration in the criticism of zero-tolerance policies. Adolescents and children have brain structures that are still developing. Before the age of 15: adolescents appear to display psycho-social immaturity in at least four areas:

poor resistance to peer influence, attitudes toward and perception of risk, future orientation, and impulse control (American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force; Gardner and Laurence; Zimring; Arnett; Hooper, Cuciana and Conklin; Greene; Grisso, Steinberg and Woolard; Cauffman and Steinberg; Luna, Garver and Urban).

Developmental neuroscience shows that students’ minds are still immature. However, too often school discipline punishes, and pushes into the criminal justice system, normal misbehavior for children and adolescents that do not put safety at risk. For instance, In Florida a six-year-old girl was charged with a felony and two misdemeanors for throwing a temper tantrum in school (Kim and Geronimo).

Most troubling about the use of highly punitive school discipline, is the discrimination evident in how it is applied. White students are referred for discipline for more objective and documentable behaviors such as smoking or leaving school without permission. Alternatively, African American students are referred for discipline for more subjective misbehavior such as disrespect or excessive noise (Evertson and Weinstein). In addition, studies show that Black students do not misbehave more than their White peers, but as discussed in the post published on October 7th (, are suspended and expelled in the philosophy of zero-tolerance disproportionately (Rudd). In Utah, a study finds that Black students are disciplined more than three times more than expected and American Indian students are three and a half time more likely to receive a disciplinary action than any other racial group (Albers, Brian and Downey)

A fourth problem with the approach of dispensing harsh punishment to a multitude of non-threatening or minor misbehavior is that it does not help the underlying problems of misbehavior. One example of discipline policy where this is clear is in the intersection of zero-tolerance and student drug use.

When zero-tolerance policies are used when students abuse drugs, instead of being an intervention point and helping students, schools are simply kick out students in need. This does nothing for underlying problems and creates an inability for students to approach the adults they see most often, school staff. By sending away students because they triggered zero-tolerance policies, schools may be eliminating one of the main sources of stability in students’ lives. Of course, the problems of drug use by students goes beyond disciplinary policies, but zero-tolerance only exacerbates the problem. If students cannot feel safe to reach out for help in an institution and with the adults they see very often, then we are pushing students away while neglecting their drug problems. The issue, with zero-tolerance polices, of pushing out students who need help for underlying problems, can be applied to other misbehaviors. These include anger problems, skipping class, or being disruptive. Suspensions and expulsions cannot solve students’ problems and engage students in school. The feeling of being disengaged with school is a main cause of school dropout, which is not a trend we want to grow (Hauser and Koenig). By pushing students out of school we are contributing to disengagement. If we want to address students’ misbehavior then suspension, expulsions, and arrests are not the answer.

All of this is not to say that students do not ever do legitimately dangerous things that warrant extreme measures such as police intervention or expulsion. Additionally, school officials have the responsibility of maintaining a safe and productive work environment. However, when working with students who are still developing, who need our guidance, patience, and encouragement, we should not be quick to give up on them and send them away. Every effort should be made to help the student with any underlying problems and most importantly, keep them in school! We need to keep schools safe and keep schools full. We can do this by resolving and organizing to keep students in school so that they may be under our guidance and reach their full potential. In-depth discussion on alternatives to harsh punitive discipline to be discussed in future blogs.

Look out for a new Breaking Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline blog series post on mass-incarceration and how it contributes to the School-to-Prison pipeline in November!

Works Cited

Albers, Jordin, et al. From Fingerpaint to Fingerprints. The University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. Salt Lake City, 2014.

American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. "Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations." 2008.

Arnett, Jeffrey. "Reckless Behavior in Adolescence: A developmental perspective." Developmental Review 12 (1992): 339-343.

Bickel, Frank and Robert Quals. "The impact of school climate on suspension rates in the Jefferson County Public Schools." Urban Review 12 (1980): 79-86.

Cauffman, Elizabeth and Laurence Steinberg. "(Im)maturity of judegement in adolescence: Why adolescents may be less culpable than adults." Behavioral Sciences and the Law 18 (2000): 741-760.

Evertson, Carolyn and Carol Weinstein. Handbook of Classroom Management: Research, Practice, and Contemporary Issues. Handbook. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 2006.

Gardner, Margo and Steinberg Laurence. "Peer influene on risk taking, risk preference, and risky decision making in adolescence and adulthood: An experimental study." Developmental Psychology 41.4 (2005): 625-635.

Greene, Al. "Future time perspective in adolescence: The present of things future revisited." Journal of Youth and Adolescence 15 (1986): 99-113.

Grisso, Thomas, et al. "Juveniles' competence to statnd trial: A comparison of adolescents' and adults' capacities as trial defendants." Law and Human Behavior 27 (2003): 333-363.

Hauser, Robert and Judith Koenig. "High school dropout, graduation, and completion rates." National Research Council; National Academy of Education, 2011.

Hooper, Catalina, et al. "Adolescents' performance on the Iowa Gambling Task: Implications for the development of decision making and ventromedial prefrontal cortex." Developmental Psychology 40 (2004): 1148-1158.

Kim, Catherine and I. India Geronimo. "Policing in Schools." American Civil Liberties Union, 2009.

Losen, Daniel, Damon Hewitt and Ivory Todson. "Eliminating Excessive and Unfair Exclusionary Discipline in Schools Policy Recommendations for Reducing Disparities." Discipline Disparities Research to Practice Collaborative, 2014.

Luna, Beatrice, et al. "Maturation of cognitive processes from late childhood to adulthood." Child Development 75 (2004): 1357-1372.

Rudd, Tom. Racial Disproportionality in School Discipline. Brief. Kirwan Institute. Columbus, 2014.

Russell, Skiba. "Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice." Policy Research Report. Indiana Education Policy Center, 2000.

US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. 2006 Data Collection . <>.

Zimring, Franklin. American Youth Violence. Oxford: Oxfor University Press, 1998.