Zero Tolerance

In South Carolina, a sixth-grader brought a knife to school when her mother packed it in her lunch to cut chicken. When she asked if she was allowed to use it, the girl was taken away in a police cruiser and suspended, without ever taking out the knife.1 In another part of the country, a five-year-old found a razor blade at the bus stop and brought it to school to show his teacher; he was expelled and transferred to another school.2 And in yet another school, a student was expelled for talking on a cell phone, even though he was talking to his mother—for the first time in 30 days—while she was on deployment in Iraq.3 All of these schools were technically doing what they were supposed to be doing. But was it the right thing to do?

How did we get to this point?

Although some semblance of extreme punishment existed as early as 1989, the concept of “” was not popularized until the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. This legislation focused specifically on bringing weapons to school and mandated that any student caught with a weapon on school grounds was to be expelled for one calendar year and referred to the juvenile justice system.4 This punishment seems to fit the severity of the crime. But over time, the offense which propagated the Gun-Free Schools Act— bringing a weapon to school—may account for less than two percent of the offenses for which students are actually suspended or expelled.5

If this is true, what ARE our kids getting punished for?

A study6 found that the majority of school suspensions occur in response to relatively minor incidents that do not threaten school safety. The top three infractions were tardiness, absenteeism, and physical conflicts between students.

Discipline Issues

The chart above shows that only 2% of the principals participating in the study7 would consider possession of weapons an issue in their school.

Oh, great! Does that mean our zero tolerance policies are working?

Well—no. The American Psychological Association’s Zero Tolerance Task Force set out to answer that question. And while there was not enough data to be 100% conclusive, their key findings were:

“In general, data tended to contradict the presumptions made in applying a zero tolerance approach to maintaining school discipline and order.”8

A report by The American Academy of Pediatrics came to a similar—albeit more boding and direct—conclusion:

“Out-of-school suspension and expulsion have short- and long-term consequences that are best avoided if at all possible.”9

So, what ARE the consequences of all these suspensions and expulsions?

Data10 supports that zero tolerance—and it’s requisite suspensions and expulsions—are bad for our schools, students, juvenile justice system, and communities:

1. Students who were suspended and / or expelled are more likely to drop out or be held back.

Student Data 1

 2. Students who were suspended and / or expelled are more likely to be involved with the juvenile justice system. 

Student Data 2

 3. Schools do not benefit from increased suspensions. 

The Zero Tolerance Task Force has gone on to determine that,

schools with higher rates of suspension tend to have lower academic quality, pay less attention to school climate, and receive lower ratings on school governance measures.”11

This is a rather bleak diagnosis.

Where did we go wrong with Zero Tolerance?

Unfortunately the very psychology behind zero tolerance, which intuitively seems appropriate, is flawed. This level of extreme punishment acts on a series of the following false assumptions determined by the Zero Tolerance Task Force.12

ASSUMPTION 1: School violence is at a crisis level and incidents are increasing, further warranting the need for drastic measures to prevent future incidents. 

REALITY: Data indicates that school violence has remained stable, or has even decreased slightly, since approximately 1985.13

ASSUMPTION 2: Zero tolerance creates a level of consistency within school discipline, and therefore students maintain accountability and good behavior. 

REALITY: Rates of suspension and expulsion vary widely across schools and school districts, indicating no unanimous consistency.14

ASSUMPTION 3: Removing disruptive students creates a safer, more positive environment for the students that remain. 

REALITY: Schools with higher rates of suspension and expulsion have less overall satisfactory ratings of campus climate.15

ASSUMPTION 4: The severe punishments of zero tolerance deter students from bad behavior. 

REALITY: School suspension appear to predict higher future rates of misbehavior among those students who are suspended.16

Well, what can we do instead?

 There is a growing community of principals, teachers, administrators and parents that supports the use of Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports () as an alternate solution. By focusing on and recognizing positive behavior in students, you promote the good while discouraging the bad. A report by the American Academy of Pediatrics explains it well:

“The key is that [PBIS] does not stress fixing the student’s past as much as it stresses the gains to be made by improving behavior in the future. In so doing, it does not make demands for counseling and psychological resources that the school district itself may not be able to provide; rather, it creates around each student and all students an environment of support such that even those students being disciplined can feel that it is being done supportively rather than punitively. It is cost-effective, not only in terms of demands on resources, but in terms of success.”17

PBIS achieves measurable outcomes which include increased school safety, student achievement, and satisfaction in school climate, as well as decreased office referrals, classroom disruptions, and suspensions and expulsions. In fact, schools typically see a rather dramatic shift in behavior trends once PBIS concepts are introduced.

PBIS trends

Change is good.

Acts of school violence shake us to the core. These incidents are nothing shy of horrific, and without even sensationalizing these events they become part of the tragic fabric of our media landscape. With such unimaginable things happening in our schools, it is no question that something needs to be done to protect our students and children. But what if what we have been doing just isn’t working anymore, or never did at all? Isn’t it time to make a change?




1-2, 4. Skiba, RJ, Peterson, R The Dark Side of Zero Tolerance: Can Punishment Lead to Safe Schools?
5. Sundis J, Farneth M. Putting kids out of school: what’s causing high suspension rates and why they are detrimental to students, schools and communities. Open Society Institute-Baltimore’s Student Attendance Series Policy Paper 2. Baltimore, MD: Open Society Institute; September 2008.
6. Russell J. Skiba, Reece L. Peterson, and Tara Williams, “Office Referrals and Suspension: Disciplinary Intervention in Middle Schools,” Education and Treatment of Children, vol. 20, 1997, pp. 295-315.
7. Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-1997 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, NCES 98-030, 1998).
3, 8, 11-12. Skiba RJ, Reynolds CR, Graham S, Shera P, Conoley JC, Garcia-Vasquez E; American Psychological Association, Zero Tolerance Task Force. Are Zero-Tolerance Policies Effective in Schools? Washington DC: American Psychological Association; 2006
9, 17. Report: Out-of-School Suspension and Expulsion by American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on School Health
10. Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. July 2011, The Council of State Gove Justice Center, The Public Policy Research Institue, Texas A& M University
13. DeVoe et al., 2004; National Center for Education Statistics, 2006
14. Kaeser, 1979; Skiba, Peterson, & Williams, 1997
15. Bickel & Qualls, 1980
16. Bowditch, 1993; Costenbader & Markson, 1998; Raffaele-Mendez, 2003; Tobin, Sugai, & Colvin, 1996.