Randy Sprick's Safe & Civil Schools – Practical Solutions, Positive Results!

Zero Tolerance and Its Role in the Justice System

For 20 years, zero tolerance policies in schools have lead to stories such as these:

Zero tolerance can be roughly defined as a disciplinary policy used in schools that punishes selected offenses severely (no matter the circumstances) in order to send the message that the specified behaviors will not be tolerated.

From 1985 through 1993, incidents of students firing guns on school grounds seemed to escalate. In response, the federal government passed the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. Zero tolerance policies arose in response to this act. School administrators across the country began to suspend or expel any student caught on campus with a firearm. As time went on, however, the offenses incorporated into a school or district’s zero tolerance policy increased. Schools began to assign suspensions and expulsions for any weapon or drug (including alcohol and tobacco), fighting, threats, swearing, disorderly conduct, and noncompliance, thus giving rise to such ludicrous episodes as those described above.

Studies about the efficacy of zero tolerance are few. On the other hand, studies on the ineffectiveness of these policies abound. [See Skiba, R. J. (2000). Zero tolerance, zero evidence: An analysis of school disciplinary practice. Policy Research Report #SRS2. Indiana Education Policy Center.] This research has highlighted the failings of zero tolerance:

These failings together combine to produce possibly the worst aspect of zero tolerance—a feature that has been labeled in the literature as the "school to prison pipeline" or "schoolhouse to jailhouse track."

The most avid proponents of zero tolerance have widened the punishment scope to include the juvenile justice system. In this scenario, an offending student is arrested and charged with a crime in addition to receiving a suspension or expulsion.

Once on this road, many students, having grown to distrust authority and without any real adult support, find themselves on a downward spiral whose ultimate end is prison. Students who feel unfairly punished, who feel unheard, who are black, Hispanic, poor, or have a disability, who feel no worthwhile connection with their teachers, and who have no adult in their lives willing to show them the proper way to behave inevitably drop out of school. Dropping out is the beginning of the slippery slide into incarceration. In Texas alone, more than 80 percent of the prison population dropped out of school. [Texas' School-to-Prison Pipeline, 2007]

If zero tolerance is not the answer, what is?

Most opponents of zero tolerance agree on several strategies that schools can use as alternatives to the punitive policies currently in use. Texas Appleseed, an organization that seeks to derail the "school to prison pipeline," offers these recommendations to schools and districts:

Together all of these recommendations work to improve school climate by stressing the positive and believing in the worth of every child, which is exactly the Safe & Civil Schools mission.

It costs far less to make resources available to keep students in school and learning than it does to finance their future incarceration. The additional cost in wasted human life and potential that incarceration lays on society is incalculable. At Safe & Civil Schools, we urge you to invest wisely now. Tomorrow we will all reap the benefits.

For more information about the School-to-Prison Pipeline, we recommend these readings:

Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track – Download a copy from the Advancement Project.

Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline – Download a copy from the Advancement Project.

Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice – Download a copy from the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy (CEEP) at Indiana University.

Texas' School-to-Prison Pipeline: Dropout to Incarceration—The Impact of School Discipline and Zero Tolerance – Download a copy from Texas Appleseed.