As traumatic events like school shootings continue, parents, students, and educators alike all have an interest in determining which kinds of student conduct are absolutely inadmissible and require punitive disciplinary responses, including expulsion, as fairly as possible. Here’s an overview of zero-tolerance policies in U.S. schools along with a sampling of opinion about their usefulness.

Zero-Tolerance Policies in Primary and Secondary Education

In principle, zero-tolerance policies in U.S. schools are obvious and almost indisputable. Some kinds of student behavior cannot be tolerated and must result in disciplinary responses that include expulsion. Students can’t bring guns to school, for example; can’t attack teachers, or sell drugs on campus.

In practice, however zero-tolerance policies have become fraught and widely disputed. How could something so seemingly straightforward have become so controversial? To understand what’s happened, let’s go back to the origins of these policies.

In the 1980s, an era of rising crime, a few states passed laws against the use of drugs in schools and against certain kinds of assaults. In 1994, in conjunction with "War on Drugs," legislation, the federal government passed a “Gun-Free Schools Act,” which called for mandatory student expulsion in every state for firearm offenses.

Many states followed with their own list of crimes and offenses that would initiate expulsion. As a group, these lists became known as “zero-tolerance policies.”

Although the term "zero-tolerance" implies that some behaviors are absolutely prohibited, most schools and school districts took a tiered approach. First offenses and many kinds of subsequent offenses were “not tolerated” in the sense that the student offender would be disciplined according to policy, but they wouldn’t necessarily be expelled.

What these policies provided and still provide is a structured disciplinary framework and, in theory, a standardized response to bad behavior to ensure that students are treated in predictable and uniform ways.

Zero-Tolerance Policy Problems

According to Samuel Johnson, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Zero-tolerance policies provide several examples.

One problem with them all is that while the federal intention was to provide standardized responses to offenses, the reality is that even in the seven states that have named zero-tolerance policies, beyond the obvious infractions that really are not tolerated — bringing a gun to school is often cited as an example — there is almost no uniformity from one state or even one school district to another. Every jurisdiction treats infractions differently.

Another more serious problem is that while the announced intention of these policies is to reduce disciplinary disparities — where African-American students, for example, might receive more severe punishments for a given infraction than white students — the research indicates that in practice the opposite is often true.

Some of this has to do with the rote application of a zero-tolerance rule where it’s obviously inappropriate. A review of the policies in Education World cites an incident in a Wisconsin grade school where an honor student brought a kitchen knife to school to cut an onion for a science project as a typical kind of problem. Although the punishment was eventually reduced to suspension, the principal wanted him expelled.

Another instance cited was the Colorado fifth-grade student who discovered that her mother had packed a plastic knife in her lunch box. Since even plastic knifes aren’t allowed, the student turned the knife over to her teacher. She was then expelled.

Possibly the worst consequence of these policies, however, is their effect on students of color. The zero-tolerance punishments meted out to all students seem excessive to begin with — expulsion for using a pea-shooter, for example.

But, research shows, the policies not only disadvantage black male students, which in 2019 is increasingly understood, but black females as well. In 2010, one study showed, black females were suspended four times more often than white females.

The Social Effects of Zero-Tolerance Policies

Crime in this country has declined measurably, and for some kinds of crime dramatically since 1994, the year the federal government intervened in school discipline with measures that included the Gun-Free Schools Act. It can be argued that contemporaneous zero-tolerance school policies contributed to this improvement.

A more granular look at the statistics, however, doesn’t support this view. Research also indicates that the policies increase "exclusionary disciplinary action" but do not contribute to either improved academic performance or improved school safety. While generalizations about large-scale and complex social changes involving many different actors need to be presented as possibilities rather than conclusions, many of the studies that question the effectiveness of zero-tolerance point to the absence of rehabilitative services to support disciplinary actions as a critical weakness.