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Are Zero Tolerance Policies at Schools Harmful?

By George Khoury, Esq. on April 24, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

School safety can be a controversial subject. Although everyone agrees that safe schools are important and essential in every community, not everyone agrees on how to achieve safe schools. Zero tolerance policies began emerging in the 1980s and 90s in response to the increased efforts in the government's war on drugs, as well as part of the Gun Free Schools Act.

Over time, many schools expanded their zero tolerance policies to include other behaviors including fighting, or possessing drugs or alcohol, and even less serious offenses. After the tragic Columbine shooting in 1999, many more schools started instituting zero tolerance policies for students caught carrying weapons. However, now that there is decades of data for researchers to review and analyze, zero tolerance policies have come under the microscope.

A Snowball's Chance in Detention

A criticism of zero tolerance policies involves the application of the rigid policies to normal childhood behavior. For example, a few years back, a Chicago teen was expelled for hitting a school employee with a snowball, despite the fact that there were no injuries. Further, students across the country have been expelled for fighting, or simply just watching a fight and not getting help.

Researchers now believe that zero tolerance policies have the opposite effect and lead to an increase in repeat offenses and student dropout rates. Additionally, suspension and expulsions, particularly for minor offenses, have been found to not result in a safer school climate.

Discriminatory Impact of Zero Tolerance Policies

In addition to the problem of zero tolerance policies not achieving the desired results, multiple studies have shown that there is a disproportionate impact on African-American and Hispanic students. While the policies may be facially neutral, studies show that African American and Hispanic students are disciplined for violations that white students routinely get away with, such as being disruptive, or insubordinate.

To remedy this, in 2014, the Department of Education issued a warning to public schools across the country to review their discipline policies and practices for discriminatory impact, and remedy any inequalities, or face a potential federal civil rights enforcement action.

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