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Zero Tolerance Policies

Ostensibly, exclusionary discipline practices should be used as a last resort consequence for objective, rule-based violations like bringing a weapon to school. Unfortunately, under a zero tolerance policy exclusionary discipline can be used as a catchall consequence for even minor infractions. Zero tolerance is a “one-size-fits-all” approach to discipline that enables school leaders to deliver extremely punitive consequences regardless of what end of the spectrum the student’s behavior falls, from being tardy to class to bringing a weapon onto school property (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2019, p. 27).

Zero tolerance policies originated from the federal Gun-Free School Act of 1994, which at the time was a policy response to the growing concern about the supposed increase in juvenile crime in the 1980s (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2019). Then, in compliance with the Gun-Free School Act, local education agencies adopted policies that required educators to issue expulsions to students found in possession of firearms on campus (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2019). The 1999 Columbine High School shooting further precipitated a fear of gun violence in schools, and from that tragic day until the early 2000s there was an increase in the implementation of zero tolerance policies to ensure school safety (Rafa, 2019; U.S. Commission of Civil Rights, 2019). However, many states soon overcorrected and implemented exclusionary discipline policies that were even more stringent than the original federal mandate (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2019).

Undeniably, since Columbine there have been several high-profile school shootings, and we still are in desperate need of policy reforms that address the root cause of the nation’s fixation with guns and gun violence. Surprisingly though, the rates of school violence are actually not as extreme as the policy discourse has made it out to be, and instead have remained steady over the last several decades. However, fear often drives policy decisions, as zero tolerance policies have done little to decrease incidents of school violence (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2019).

While zero tolerance policies were originally intended to address violent infractions, in practice educators use this approach primarily as a consequence for non-violent, minor infractions, which are behaviors that educators subjectively view as disruptive (Duncan, 2014; U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2019). In a state level study, Rausch and Skiba (2006) found that only 5% of out-of-school suspensions were actually for serious infractions like drugs or weapons, while 95% of suspensions were for disruptive or other behaviors. Thus, zero tolerance policies have not had the desired effect that they were originally intended to.

Considering the extent to which zero tolerance policies disproportionately exclude students of color from learning opportunities, several states have decided to roll back exclusionary discipline policies like suspension and expulsion and instead implement policies that are less punitive and promote a positive school culture and climate (Rafa, 2019). According to an Education Commission of the States policy brief, in the last five years state legislatures have only passed seven bills that support suspension and expulsion (Rafa, 2019), whereas, 36 bills were passed that impeded the use of suspension and expulsion and instead promoted alternative and less-punitive discipline approaches (Rafa, 2019). Disaggregating data by race is important to directly naming the problem of racial disproportionality of school discipline. Currently, at least 33 states and the District of Columbia require some form of reporting on school discipline, and 11 states and the District of Columbia require suspensions and expulsion data be disaggregated by demographic subgroups like race, gender, and disability status.

Educators Don’t “Treat All Students the Same”: Race and the Severity of the Infraction

A common color-evasive defense mechanism white people use to not appear racist is to affirm that “I treat everyone the same because I don’t see color” (Bonilla-Silva, 2017; DiAngelo, 2018). However, when it comes to school discipline, this mantra of white fragility could not be further from the truth, as educators do not treat all students the same when issuing disciplinary consequences. Not only are students of color disciplined more than white students, if a white student and a student of color commit the same infraction it is highly likely that the student of color would receive the harsher consequence, and society reinforces this unfairness. If a white person and person of color are charged with the same crime, the person of color is likely to receive a harsher punishment—as evident in recent murders of Black youth, including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Laquan McDonald, to name a few, by white police officers (see Alexander, 2010).

There are distinct racial differences among students in the severity of disciplinary infractions. For example, a Texas study found that Black students were more likely than white or Latinx students to be disciplined for discretionary offenses like tardiness, leaving class early, or dress code violations. Similarly, when examining discipline data in Arkansas K-12 schools over a seven-year period (2008-09 to 2014-15), Anderson and Ritter (2017) found that 80% of the discipline referrals were for minor non-violent offenses like disorderly conduct and insubordination. Also, Black students received harsher exclusionary punishments for these minor offenses. Black students were almost 2.5 times more likely to receive exclusionary discipline than their white peers in the same grade for the same type of infraction. Likewise, low-income students were 1.5 times more likely than their more affluent peers to receive exclusionary discipline for the same type of infraction. Schools with a higher percentage of students of color, more specifically Black students, issued harsher and longer punishments. Interestingly, open enrollment charter schools in the state gave harsher punishments as well. Charter schools in Arkansas are primarily located in urban areas and have higher percentages of Black students compared to white students. The researchers attributed this finding to charter school networks like the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) that adhere to a “no excuses” approach to discipline. Finally, even when controlling for poverty levels of the school, ultimately race matters most to discipline disproportionality. Students in higher-income, nonwhite schools received an extra half-day of discipline for eve 17 infraction, compared to students in predominately white, higher-income schools. Also, students in low-income, nonwhite schools received 0.6 extra days of punishment compared to students in white, low-income schools.

Racial disproportionality of school discipline is also linked to school segregation, a policy issue previously discussed in Chapters 2 and 3 of this book. Upon examining statewide data in Indiana, Gopalan and Nelson (2019) found that 82% of Black students attended the 35 districts (out of 400) that accounted for 51% of the suspensions and expulsions in the state, but Black students only represent 38% of student enrollment. One explanation for this finding is that Black students are overwhelmingly segregated in districts with “punitive disciplinary environments” (p.13). According to the researchers, if Black students in Indiana were “re-sorted” and attended predominately white schools situated in districts that had lower than average disciplinary rates, “the Black-White disciplinary gap would decline by 11 % to 25% across grade levels” (p. 14). Gopalan and Nelson infer that,

The uneven distribution of Black students across districts likely corresponds to the uneven distribution of resources, teacher quality, and other factors that are associated with adverse disciplinary' outcomes... also minority students who attend schools with more minority (or poor) students exhibit similar behaviors but are treated differently. For example, schools with more minority and poor students may experience a larger presence of school resource officers, which may increase the likelihood of punitive disciplinary action conditional on behavior.

(p. 14)

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