Moving Beyond Zero Tolerance

News Release: 
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

By Alison Holcomb and Michael J. Allen

You've probably heard some shocking stories of draconian school discipline.  A six-year old Cub Scout in Delaware was ordered to attend an alternative school for nine weeks because he brought a camping utensil to school to eat his lunch.  Following public outcry and media scrutiny, the school board lifted the suspension and voted unanimously to reduce the punishment for kindergartners and first-graders who take weapons to school to a mandatory suspension lasting three to five days.1

Thirteen years ago in Ohio, a school district suspended a fourteen-year-old girl for four months for giving a classmate a tablet of nonprescription Midol.2  There have been many other such incidents in between. Although extreme, such examples of over-zealous application of well-intended disciplinary policies reflect the culture of "zero tolerance" that permeates school discipline and criminalizes – rather than corrects – student behavior.

Initially, zero tolerance as a theory of school discipline entailed consistently enforced suspension policies in response to weapons, drugs and violent behavior at school.  Under the theory, certain behaviors warrant severe, mandatory disciplinary responses, usually beginning with the removal of the student from the classroom.

Over time, the zero tolerance approach has spawned many school district policies that mete out harsh punishments, including suspensions and expulsions, for rule infractions across a broad spectrum of behavior.  Rigid school discipline policies contribute to a socially devastating cycle called the "school-to-prison pipeline" whereby students are expelled from school and find their way onto the streets and ultimately into the juvenile justice – and later adult criminal justice – system.   

The historical roots of zero tolerance policies in schools stretch back through school shooting tragedies in the 1990s to the ideological clash over an emerging youth drug culture in the late 1970s.  Weapons policies gained momentum when Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 requiring every state to pass legislation mandating a minimum one year expulsion for any student found in possession of a gun.3

A decade earlier, the Reagan Administration's "War on Drugs" influenced the adoption by schools of zero tolerance policies aimed at cracking down on drug use and possession on campus.  Even before that, a groundswell of parental pressure pushed for zero tolerance as an assault against the youth drug culture emerging out of the post-Vietnam era.  In his book about the evolution of America's drug policy since the Nixon Administration, Michael Massing chronicles this counterrevolution of middle class suburban parents to oppose drug use by youth as a moral, rather than public health, issue.4  Congress ultimately embraced the idea with the Drug-Free Schools and Campuses Act of 1989, banning the unlawful use, possession, or distribution of drugs and alcohol by students on school grounds.   Educational agencies afraid of losing federal funding soon adopted zero tolerance discipline policies.5 

Today, between 79 and 94 percent of American public schools maintain zero tolerance policies.6  In Washington, each district has authority to set its own policies, and the applicable regulations permit districts to adopt rules providing for immediate resort to long-term suspension in cases involving "exceptional misconduct."7

Many districts have defined weapon, drug and alcohol offenses as exceptional misconduct warranting automatic suspensions or expulsions even for minor first-time offenses.  Certainly, student safety warrants serious sanctions for carrying dangerous weapons onto school grounds, but recent statistics show that only a small portion of incidents reported in the state actually involve the kind of firearms Congress intended to keep out of schools.8

Disparate approaches to both the number and type of exceptional misconduct offenses and the range of applicable punishments abound.  For example, the Renton School District has established minimum and maximum ranges of corrective discipline for exceptional misconduct for seven categories of conduct.  The list includes "disrupting the educational process" and "refusing to follow the reasonable directions of staff" along with weapons- and drug-related offenses, and stipulates a range of corrective action from short-term suspension to expulsion.

By comparison, the Seattle School District has defined nine broad categories of offenses as exceptional misconduct for which the standard punishment for a first offense is some form of suspension.  That list of offenses includes possession of small folding knives, use of a toy weapon in a threatening manner, interference with school authorities, trespass and malicious mischief.9

Research raises the question whether such zero tolerance policies actually improve campus safety.10  A rising chorus of criticism warns that zero tolerance is ineffective.  The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority concluded in a recent report that "there is no evidence that zero tolerance policies improve student behavior, the school climate or overall school safety."11

Moreover, a one-size-fits-all, mandatory punishment approach tends to treat children as criminals and falls short of the school system's fundamental mission to nurture and educate.12  The American Bar Association opposes zero tolerance policies as an issue of basic justice.  The ABA rejects public education's effort to import into education an adult-oriented concept of mandatory sentencing that fails to demonstrate any understanding of either the science of child and adolescent development or proportionality of punishment.13   The National Association of School Psychologists criticizes zero tolerance discipline as clinically ineffective and associated with a number of adverse consequences, such as increased school dropout rates and discriminatory application of discipline practices.14

Zero tolerance policies also foster a cycle of suspension and ostracism that becomes self-fulfilling prophecy channeling students into the school-to-prison pipeline.   According to a recent NYCLU study – entitled Safety with Dignity: Alternative Approaches to the Over-Policing of Schools – children removed from their learning environment for even a few days are more likely to drop out, use drugs, struggle emotionally, enter the juvenile justice system and develop adult criminal records.  Indeed, the best demographic indicator of the risk for future suspension is incidence of prior suspension – not student behavior.  Suspension from school is a better predictor of high school dropout rate than socioeconomic status, family situation, or peer influence.  Youth dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than graduates.15

Even where progress has been made to reduce suspension rates, such as in the Seattle School District, discipline guidelines still reflect an expanding culture of zero tolerance.  For example, in 1996, only 15 offenses could lead to suspension on the first violation, but the number has climbed to 32 such offenses, with 19 others warranting suspension after only one warning.

Why are such policies retained despite their questionable efficacy and potential long-term detrimental consequences?  Political resonance factors heavily.  Public pressure on school officials to crack down on school violence and drug abuse remains intense.  Also, federal funding incentives from the Safe and Drug‑Free Schools and Communities (SDFSC) provision of the No Child Left Behind Act encourage a tough stance.16 

Nevertheless, alternatives exist. Violence prevention curricula and early behavior intervention based on sound mental health principles can cultivate a safe school climate. For example, the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative presents a proactive preventive model for identifying and engaging high-risk youth that emphasizes case management, mentorship, anger management training, peer mediation, family support services, youth employment programs, and recreation programs.  Also, the Illinois report cited above similarly advocates principles of restorative justice aimed at accountability, community safety, and development of social skills, rather than a punitive approach.

The October 2009 Bar Bulletin offered a discussion of alternative school drug policies that focus on practical education and restorative – rather than exclusionary – practices that break the cycle of suspension. The article, "How Ending the War on Drugs Will Help Our Children," proposed three recommendations relating to drug education, assistance and counseling, and restorative practices that draw upon recommendations of Professor Rodney Skager in his booklet, Beyond Zero Tolerance.17  Also, where serious offenses involving deadly weapons or illicit drugs lead to long-term suspension or expulsion, alternative education options prevent children from falling behind in their studies and dropping out of school completely. 

The path toward a more effective and just school disciplinary approach demands departure from the zero tolerance theory that relies so heavily upon exclusionary punishments.  Washington needs a broad, two-pronged approach aimed at decriminalizing the school disciplinary process and ensuring educational alternatives for those who are sanctioned.

First, the Legislature should require the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to reform and standardize school district discipline policy guidelines on a statewide basis in order to incorporate rational, restorative principles and preventive methodologies.  Indeed, in a recent decision addressing school funding, the Washington Supreme Court discussed the constitutional imperative for consistency in the State's school systems.18 Second, the State should mandate, through legislative action or OSPI directive, the implementation of alternative education options for suspended or expelled students.

Only then can we help such students maintain academic progress and keep them on the path to becoming productive members of society, rather than victims of the vicious cycle promoted by rigid and reactionary punitive policies that push juveniles away from an economically essential education and toward the criminal justice system.

Alison Holcomb is Drug Policy Director and Michael J. Allen – a 3L at Seattle University School of Law – is a legal extern with the ACLU of Washington.

1See Ian Urbina, After Uproar on Suspension, District Will Rewrite Rules, The New York Times, Oct. 13, 2009, available at

2James Hannah, Suspension Cut for Girl Who Gave Friend Midol, The Seattle Times, Oct. 8, 1996.

3Pub. L. 103-382, Title I, § 101, Oct. 20, 1994, 198 Stat. 3907.

4Michael Massing, The Fix: Under The Nixon Administration, America Had An Effective Drug Policy.  We Should Restore It. (Nixon Was Right), 1990.

5Pub.L. 101-226, Dec. 12, 1989, 103 Stat. 1928.

6NYCLU, Safety with Dignity: Alternative Approaches to the Over-Policing of Schools, 2009, available at

7WAC 392-400-255 (each school district has authority to establish its own discipline policies); WAC 392-400-260 ("A school district may, however, elect to adopt rules providing for the immediate resort to long-term suspension in cases involving exceptional misconduct"). 

8See November 2008 Memo of Superintendent Terry Bergeson to Gov. Gregoire regarding 2007-08 Weapons in Schools Report showing that of the total 3004 public school incidents in Washington, 74 incidents involved firearms, available at

10Russell J. Skiba, Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice, Policy Research Report #SRS2, August 2000.

11Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, Implementing Restorative Justice: A Guide for Schools, 2009, available at

12In Washington, it is the "paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste or sex." Wash. Const. art. IX, sec. 1.

13ABA Juvenile and Justice Committee, Zero Tolerance Policy, Feb. 2001, available at

14National Association of School Psychologists, Zero Tolerance and Alternative Strategies: A Fact Sheet for Educators and Policymakers, 2001, available at

15See Team Child, Fact Sheet, Repaving the Road to Graduation: Improving Education Outcomes for All Students, available at

16P.L. 107-110.  See OSPI documents describing school obligations under the SDFC at

17Rodney Skager, Beyond Zero Tolerance: A Reality-Based Approach to Drug Education & School Discipline, Drug Policy Alliance 2007, available at

18Federal Way School Dist. No. 210 v. Washington, No. 80943-7, Nov. 12, 2009 ("This court has long held that article IX, section 2 imposes upon the State a fundamental duty to create a common school system. Tunstall, 141 Wn.2d at 221.  We have previously elaborated on what such a system must consist of. "Uniform" means that "every child shall have the same advantages and be subject to the same discipline as every other child."  Sch. Dist. No. 20 v. Bryan, 51 Wash. 498, 502, 99 P. 28 (1909).") (emphasis added).