In the shadow of extreme acts of school violence over recent decades, public school policies across the country turned to a “Zero Tolerance” of violence. This policy and the mandates that followed dramatically increased the use of suspension, expulsion and criminalization in response to violent behavior or threats of behavior in schools.
Zero tolerance is defined as a policy, which assigns explicit, predetermined punishments to specific violations of school rules, regardless of the situation or context of the behavior.
Zero tolerance has been implemented nationwide through the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994, which mandates a one-year expulsion for students who have been determined to possess a firearm or any instrument that can be used as a weapon to school. Many school districts have adopted more expansive variations of the policy that cover numerous other violations, such as bullying, fighting, using drugs or alcohol, and even swearing or wearing ―banned types of clothing. The Civil Rights and Advancement Project 2000 reports that while specific zero tolerance policies vary by school, at least 79 percent of schools nationwide had adopted these policies towards alcohol, drugs, and violence by 1997”.
“Zero Tolerance” policies broadened the definition of danger from acts of violence to any behavior suggestive of violence or school safety. In essence these policies moved from a response to actual events to even the possibility of threats to school safety. The cost of school shootings so dramatic that it would seem nothing short of “Zero Tolerance” would be reasonable to insure the safety of our school children. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that these policies have been successful and growing evidence that these policies may actually represent an additional risk to safety. Research into the effectiveness of “Zero Tolerance” policy in the reduction or prevention of school violence has been minimal and difficult. The policy tends to be implemented very differently in depending on the school, district or state, impacting the validity of data. Additionally, research into the specifics of school disciplinary actions is often considered protected information. What is undeniable is that the use of suspension and expulsion has dramatically increased over this same time period.
Unfortunately the evidence that suspension has improved school safety is simply non-existent and in fact its use and particularly overuse may actually be increasing the likelihood of more violent future behavior at school and society at large. There is ample evidence to support that the ultimate outcome of removing students who break rules from school is that removal separates the student from all opportunities to improve behavior through skill development. Students who experience suspension are far more likely to repeat the behavior and face further suspensions. They are more likely to drop out of school and become part of the criminal justice system often due to the lack of opportunities that a lack of education presents.
Of further concern is that “Zero Tolerance” policies initially thought to be completely insulated from socio-economic or racial factors have in fact failed miserably. Nationwide suspensions and expulsions are disproportionately applied to students of color particularly for African and Mexican American youth. School districts across the country have been asked to address these issues of disproportionate use of suspension and the widening of the “Achievement Gap”. If the overall mission of schools is to create a more equitable society in which all children can be safe and have access to an education, we must be willing and prepared to look at behavior through a different lens and seek alternatives to school removal that meet this mission.