School Discipline and the Zero Tolerance Approach

School Discipline and the Zero Tolerance Approach

Dean Williams

Williams, Dean. (2013). "School Discipline and the Zero Tolerance Approach." Alaska Justice Forum 30(1): 2-4 (Spring 2013). This article explores the expansive breadth of research on the issue of school discipline, especially with regard to the zero tolerance approach to firearms in schools or other student disciplinary infractions. School expulsion and suspension for many years has been endorsed as not only appropriate, but essential to maintain school safety and harmony. Extensive research, from a vast array of sources, has challenged some long-held notions about school discipline and school safety. An accompanying bibliography provides complete citation information and URLs for research cited.

Data-driven or research-based are terms that many in the juvenile justice field both extol and sometimes curse. This love/hate relationship with research and data both informs and confounds. Most professionals recognize that before a policy or program became a "best practice" or better yet, "data-driven," someone had to come up with an informed idea that this approach, or this policy, will better serve our society than what we are currently doing. An idea comes first, then the research comes to study the idea to see if "doing X will really get us to our belief that Z" will happen. While data and research help clarify certain suppositions, justice professionals recognize that if you only committed yourself to proven or data-driven programs, nothing new or innovative would ever be tried.

Keeping this in mind, we wade into one of the most studied public policy issues in our school/juvenile justice system: the zero tolerance policy. As a disclaimer, let me make it clear that I am not a researcher and in many ways I don't really understand or get research-type people. The work seems tedious, detailed, and so focused as to bore many of us to tears. And yet, when the drum beat of data and research keeps piling up regarding an issue of huge public concern and consequence, it might be best for the most seasoned of professionals to take a closer look.

Zero Tolerance in Schools

The term zero tolerance has been used in so many venues and topic areas that it has become nearly impossible to hold an informed discussion because it means so many different things to different people. Brian Schoonover in Zero Tolerance School Discipline Policies notes, "For a person to simply learn a new word is not useful unless a corresponding definition of what that word means accompanies the proper enunciation of the word." With the waters sufficiently muddied, the most recognized genesis of the term zero tolerance seems to be the passage of the Gun-Free School Act of 1994 (GFSA). This federal law provided firm (and yet not so firm) guidelines on what should happen to a youth who brought a gun to school. States/school districts had to meet the minimum standards of the GFSA to continue to receive federal education dollars, but they could also exceed the minimum requirements, and that is where the story gets interesting. So no longer did zero tolerance (a term which is never actually used in the GFSA) apply to guns, it could also mean knives, clubs, violence, drugs (illicit, but also prescription and over the counter), alcohol, bullying, harassment, etc., depending upon what school district you attended. The penalty of expulsion was also loosely defined in the GFSA and a huge caveat was that each expulsion could be subject to case-by-case exceptions.

Given the climate of the time and the legitimate concern over school safety, the GFSA laid the foundation for very aggressive school expulsion/suspension policies throughout the country. For many school districts, keeping kids safe in school now equated to kicking out the "bad kids." Let's be clear, school safety is a hugely important issue that well-intentioned professionals wrestle with every day. As a former juvenile justice superintendent, operational safety commanded my attention every day. The risks are real, but the response to the risks is where the collision of research and "gut instinct" occurs.

The Research

This article can in no way fully summarize the mountain of research done on the issue of school discipline/safety, but let me highlight certain work in response to very popular beliefs around this topic. Here are some common perceptions about this issue:

"Schools are safer when you expel and
suspend the trouble-making kids."

The terms expulsion and suspension can take on varied meanings, but the above well-established notion generally follows the belief that kicking the "bad kids" out of school generally makes everyone else in school safer. On this one point alone, numerous debates among law enforcement, juvenile justice professionals, school district personnel, and parents have ensued. Intuitively, it seems to make sense that the school environment would be safer. Challenging this notion and summarizing the research done on this topic alone would lead to a very large book, but let me point to some very well-respected work.

In August 2006, the American Psychological Association (APA) Zero Tolerance Task Force issued a comprehensive report on zero tolerance policies, Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations. Essentially, the APA reviewed all available research and asked this very basic question: "Have zero tolerance policies made schools safer and more effective in handling disciplinary issues?" In a word, the answer was "no."

The first presumption addressed was that crime was rampant, schools were unsafe. As you can see in Figure 1, there was no real crisis in school violence in the first place, though any level of school violence is, of course, completely unacceptable. In more real terms, and more locally, the juvenile crime referral rate overall has been on a downward trend for years. Juvenile criminal referrals in Alaska are down, and according to an Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Facility Report, in March 2012 approximately 33 percent of secure cells/rooms in Alaska's juvenile justice system sit empty. Upon my departure as superintendent from McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage in May 2012, I closed down a 31-bed boys' detention unit that simply wasn't needed. There was no explosion of school crime (committed by school-aged students) to respond to in the first place, and there certainly isn't now. I realize this runs contrary to certain perceptions, especially in the face of tragic school shootings where the loss of life has been shocking.

Figure 1. Percentage of Students in Grades 9-12 in the U.S. Who Reported Having Been in a Physical Fight on School Property at Least Once During the Previous 12 Months, 1993-2009

Key conclusions of the APA report include:

  • Schools with higher rates of school suspension and expulsion appear to have less satisfactory ratings of school climate and school governance, and spend a disproportionate amount of time on disciplinary matters.
  • Rather than reducing the likelihood of disruption, school suspension in general appears to predict higher future rates of misbehavior and suspension among those students who are suspended.

The report is long and extensive, but these key findings (among others) call into question the intuitive notions of school safety.

The U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education issued an extensive report in 2002 on a safe school initiative titled The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. In this report, they researched and reviewed every fatal school shooting from 1974 to June 2000. This initiative came on the heels of the Columbine High School attack in 1999. (Much of the impetus of the GFSA and the budding zero tolerance approach came from some of the horrific shootings that occurred in our schools across the nation.) Some interesting findings-and there are many-out of that report include the following:

  • Nearly two-thirds of the attackers had never been in trouble or were rarely in trouble at school.
  • Only one-quarter of the attackers had ever been suspended from school.
  • Only a few attackers (10%) had ever been expelled from school.
  • Even fewer of the attackers (5%) were failing in school.
  • Forty-one percent (41%) of the attackers were doing well in school at the time of the attack and were generally receiving A's and B's in their courses.
  • Most attackers had no prior criminal history or history of violence.
  • There is no accurate or useful "profile" of students who engaged in targeted school violence.

In this very comprehensive report there are many useful guidelines or warnings for school administrators and law enforcement, but what is striking is that the attackers researched in this study didn't match many of our notions, including my own, of what a school shooter would look like.

"Kicking the ‘bad kids' out of school makes the school environment
more conducive to those students who want to learn."

In July of 2011, the Council of State Governments and the Public Policy Research Institute issued a report, Breaking Schools' Rules, that could arguably be called the "mother of all reports" (my words, not theirs). This report looked at the impact of school discipline policies (where zero tolerance may or may not be influencing school discipline) as it related to student success and/or student involvement in the juvenile justice system. The study was conducted in Texas, involved over 900,000 7th grade student records, and followed those students for a period of six years.

Some relevant findings from this study include:

"The majority of students in the public school system (59.6%) experienced some form of suspension or expulsion in middle or high school." This very first finding of the report starts to challenge the notion or understanding of what a "bad kid" or "trouble- making kid" looks like. Getting suspended or expelled is far easier now, plain and simple.

"Students who experienced suspension or expulsion, especially those who did so repeatedly, were more likely to be held back a grade or drop out of school than students who were not involved in the disciplinary system."

Another finding concludes that "a school that makes frequent use of suspension and expulsion does not necessarily create an environment that enables the overall school to achieve better academic outcomes." The reason, of course, is that the net of suspension/expulsion has grown, and with zero tolerance in place, a "bad kid" as well as a "good kid" making a silly choice are viewed the same.

The Advancement Project issued a March 2010 report, Test, Punish, and Push Out: How Zero Tolerance and High Stakes Testing Funnel Youth into the School to Prison Pipeline, which included descriptions of real life incidents of suspension/expulsion. Among the examples given were:

  • October 2009: a six-year old student was so excited about Cub Scouts that he brought his camping utensil to school to use at lunch. Because the tool had a small knife, he was suspended and referred to alternative school for 45 days.
  • November 2009: 25 Chicago middle-school students were rounded up, arrested, taken from school, and put in jail after a food fight in the school cafeteria.
  • May 2007: an 8th-grader in Norfolk, Virginia was suspended and ordered into a program for substance abusers after she got some Tylenol from a classmate to deal with a headache.

It could be easy to dismiss the above examples as anomalies, but I would be cautious in doing so. A debate at the Anchorage School Board just a few years ago focused on the issue of whether a student "must" or "may" be expelled for an entire year for giving another student any drug, including non-prescription Tylenol, Midol, or aspirin. There was strong advocacy from school district personnel that "must" be expelled should prevail, but the School Board at the time settled on "may."

"Zero tolerance discipline is the most fair
because it treats every youth the same."

If this one supposition were at least true, then there might be some small comfort in the fact that at least a problematic policy of zero tolerance was being equitably dispensed. Data contradicts this position.

In August of 2012, the Civil Rights Project issued a report Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School that thoroughly reviewed suspensions of K-12 youth in 2009-2010 from nearly 7,000 school districts across the nation. Key findings on the national level include:

  • One out of every 6 Black school-children in K-12 (17%), were suspended at least once. That is much higher than the 1 in 13 (8%) risk for Native Americans, 1 in 20 (5%) for Whites, or 1 in 50 (2%) for Asian Americans.
  • For all racial groups combined, more than 13% of students with disabilities were suspended. This is approximately twice the rate of their non-disabled peers.
  • One out of every four (25%) Black children with disabilities enrolled in grades K-12 was suspended at least once in 2009-2010.

Disparities or disproportionate suspension rates varied of course from to state to state. While Alaska fared better in the analysis than many states, it was noteworthy that Alaska still suspended Black youth more than twice as often as White youth, and suspended Native youth almost twice as often as White youth.

A quote from the Civil Rights Project report perhaps summarizes the issue best:

The large differences in the risk for suspension suggest that what drives the use of out-of-school suspension is not a constant or predictable level of student behavior. This large variance, along with the research discussed at the end of this report, indicates that the differences in policy, practice, and leadership contribute to the frequency with which students are suspended from school. These findings should help educators in the higher suspending states, districts, and schools reject the belief that the status quo of frequent suspensions and large racial disparities is unchangeable.

Some of the previously mentioned research reports also deal with the disproportionate rates of suspension/expulsion. For the sake of brevity, I will direct the reader to those reports for more specifics, but the concerns and data reviewed in those other reports are in essential alignment with the Civil Rights Project report.


As noted previously, the mountain of research done on this topic cannot be fully examined in this limited space. I have done a brief overview of the research/data at best.

The research in some ways helps explain what happened and where we stand in terms of school discipline, zero tolerance, school safety, high school graduation rates, drop-out rates, etc. It does not answer the question of what should be done about it. Some work on the fix has progressed both on the national (Council of State Governments School Discipline Consensus Project) and local level. StepUp, the Anchorage School District/Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice diversion program for expelled/suspended students, is now starting its fourth year of operation. (See article on page 8.) It is a promising program that was developed by many of us who worked across jurisdictional boundaries. It is a start. Promising approaches and strategies have been and continue to be explored. That work is ongoing and hopefully this Forum piece encourages that work.

Dean Williams retired in 2012 as the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice Superintendent for McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage. He also serves as vice chair of the Alaska Juvenile Justice Advisory Commission, is an appointee to and sub-committee chair of the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention), and an appointee to the Council of State Governments (CSG) School Discipline Consensus Project.