School safety is critical, but zero tolerance policies have been criticized for being ineffective and contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Zero tolerance policies in schools implement rules and strict consequences for violation of these rules. Most are designed to prohibit weapons on school grounds as well as use and distribution of illegal drugs on school campuses. Consequences for violation of the rules, even if done by accident or without meaning to violate the policy, are suspension or expulsion from school, and sometimes even criminal charges are brought against the offender. Zero tolerance means just that — there is no negotiation, just the punishment spelled out in the policy, for every violation, regardless of severity.

Effectiveness of Zero Tolerance Policies

zero tolerance policiesConcern about zero tolerance policies has been expressed as the effectiveness of the discipline is being questioned. Case studies and examination of the effectiveness of school suspension and expulsion on behavior issues in schools has shown that bullying is still a serious problem and other types of misbehavior have not decreased. In an article published by “Child Trends,” Dr. Christopher Boccanfuso and Megan Kuhfeld reported that the number of drug and violent offenses in schools in Tennessee “increased substantially over the first three years of a statewide implementation of zero tolerance policy.” Findings reported by the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force show that school suspension and expulsion point to an increased rate of school dropouts as students believe that this strict punishment is unfair.

Consequences of Zero Tolerance Policies

Implementation of zero tolerance policies has caused some results that have been ridiculed as being lacking in common sense and overly harsh for the student’s behavior.

  • Shanon Coslet, a 10-year-old student in Colorado, was shown in a video on ABC’s “20/20” crying after learning that she was to be expelled. This elementary student realized a small knife her mom had put in her lunchbox to cut an apple might be a rule-breaker and she turned it into her teacher.
  • A teenager at a Chicago school also faced expulsion after being accused of throwing the snowball that hit a teacher. A video surveillance camera caught the incident on tape and showed that the student did not throw the snowball, and he was able to return to school. The teacher was not injured and no one intended to hurt the teacher or to hit him with the snowball.
  • An eighth-grader in Dallas made the mistake of mixing a few drops of grain alcohol with a 20-ounce bottle of Cherry 7-Up and taking it to school. In keeping with the zero tolerance policy at her school, she faced five months in a military-style boot camp, despite the face that she was an honor student and had no prior discipline problems.

Studies have shown that zero tolerance policies disproportionately affect black and female students, who then face expulsion for very minor infractions. Once expelled, their only choice is to enroll in “alternative schools” for students who have been thrown out of traditional schools. According to, a “study found that 43 percent of middle school students placed in alternative schools were detained in the juvenile justice system within two years,” a phenomenon known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

The Future of Zero Tolerance Policies

zero tolerance policiesChange is coming to zero tolerance policies in some schools. Legislation will take effect August 1, 2017 in Michigan that the bill’s sponsor, Andy Schor, states inserts “just a little bit of common sense into the zero tolerance law,” by giving schools options and reducing the number of students forced out of school despite the fact that they did not intend to break the law. The Los Angeles Unified School District in 2013 banned all suspensions for “willful defiance” and Oakland and San Francisco schools soon also banned these suspensions for seemingly minor rule infractions such as eating in class or violations of the dress code. The Miami-Dade County Public Schools have also curtailed school suspensions, hoping to direct its school discipline policies away from zero tolerance.

The change from zero tolerance policies to a discipline policy that focuses on strong ties with both parents and community to help students resolve conflict and stay in school is slowly being made. Christine Rodriquez, a former Brooklyn, NY, student and now a college student studying education, warns “Suspensions are the easy way out … that doesn’t tackle the root of the problem. When a teacher takes a student out and talks to us, it shows us they care.”

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