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What is "zero tolerance"?

From its inception in federal drug policy of the 1980's, zero tolerance school discipline has been intended primarily as a method of sending a message that certain behaviors will not be tolerated, by punishing both major and minor offenses severely. The broadness of zero tolerance drug programs led to a host of civil rights controversies1. But the term caught on among educators concerned about a near-epidemic of youth violence, and school boards across the country adopted zero tolerance policies for a range of disruptive behaviors. In 1994, President Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act, mandating a one-year expulsion for weapons in school.

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What are the provisions of the Gun-Free Schools Act?

The Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 mandates a one-year calendar expulsion for possession of a firearm, referral of law-violating students to the criminal or juvenile justice system, and the provision that state law must authorize the chief administrative officer of each local school district to modify such expulsions on a case-by-case basis. Local school districts have broadened the mandate of zero tolerance beyond the federal mandates of weapons, to drugs and alcohol, fighting, threats, or swearing. Some have begun to implement permanent expulsion from the system for some offenses or to apply school suspensions, expulsions, or transfers to behaviors that occur outside of school2.

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Why has zero tolerance created such controversy?

Almost from the outset, zero tolerance disciplinary policies have created controversy. Across the nation, students have been and continue to be suspended or expelled for a host of relatively minor incidents including nailfiles, paper clips, organic cough drops, a model rocket, a 5" plastic axe as part of a Halloween costume, an inhaler, and a kitchen knife in a lunch box to cut chicken (Skiba & Peterson, 1999). These harsh reactions to relatively trivial incidents may also be connected to the two-year and even permanent expulsions being considered by some districts. If a student is expelled for a year for a toy cap gun, districts may feel a need to distinguish truly dangerous incidents by extending punishment even further for actual weapons.

Oftentimes, policymakers in these contentious incidents claim that they are allowed little or no room for flexibility in the administration of district disciplinary policy. Yet this inflexibility is in no way a requirement of federal zero tolerance policy. Indeed, by requiring local districts to have in place a procedure allowing for case-by-case review, the Gun-Free Schools Act appears to mandate some degree of flexibility in the implementation of zero tolerance.

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Is zero tolerance an effective response?

The zero tolerance approach has led to increases in the use of school suspension and expulsion; unfortunately, there is no evidence that suspension and expulsion are effective in changing student behavior or improving school safety. Despite a widespread perception that suspension and expulsion are reserved for serious incidents, those consequences are often used indiscriminately; in 1997-98, only about 4% of the suspensions and expulsions in Indiana were in response to serious disruptions. Moreover, exclusionary approaches tend to be used inconsistently: one researcher concluded that students wishing to reduce their rates of suspension would do better changing schools than improving their behavior or attitudes. Finally, while there is little data on the short-term effectiveness of suspension, in the long term, it is associated with higher rates of school dropout.

The message of zero tolerance is politically appealing, giving parents and communities the perception that schools are being tough on crime. While there are doubtless situations in which removing a child from school is necessary for that child or others' safety, at present we have no evidence that punishment and exclusion can in and of themselves solve problems of school violence, or teach students alternatives to violence.

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Does zero tolerance discriminate against minorities and the poor?

The two-year expulsion of eight African American students for a football game brawl brought the issue of the overrepresentation of black students in school discipline to national attention. In fact, it has been consistently demonstrated for 25 years that African-American and in some cases Hispanic students are suspended, expelled, and subjected to corporal punishment to a greater extent than their proportion in the schools3. Low-income students are also over-represented in suspension and expulsion, but racial disproportionality in suspension persists even after controlling for poverty status4. Nor does disproportionality in discipline appear to be due to a greater rate of misbehavior; if anything, African-American students appear to be subjected to more severe punishments for less severe behavior5.

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  1. Skiba, R. J., & Peterson, R. (1999). The dark side of zero-tolerance: Can punishment lead to safe schools? Phi Delta Kappan, 80 (5), 372-382.
  2. Skiba, R. J. & Peterson, R. L. (2000). School discipline: From zero tolerance to early response. Exceptional Children, 66, 335-347.
  3. Children's Defense Fund (1975). School suspensions: Are they helping children? Cambridge, MA: Washington Research Project. Gordon, R., Della Piana, L., & Keleher, T. (2000). Facing the consequences: An examination of racial discrimination in U. S. Public Schools. Oakland, CA: Applied Research Center. Skiba, R. J., Peterson, R. L., & Williams, T. (1997). Office referrals and suspension: Disciplinary intervention in middle schools. Education and Treatment of Children, 20 (3), 295-315.
  4. Wu, S. C., Pink, W. T., Crain, R. L., & Moles, O. (1982). Student suspension: A critical reappraisal. The Urban Review, 14, 245-303.
  5. McFadden, A. C., Marsh, G. E., Price, B. J., & Hwang, Y. (1992). A study of race and gender bias in the punishment of handicapped school children. Urban Review, 24, 239-251. Shaw, S. R., & Braden, J. P. (1990). Race and gender bias in the administration of corporal punishment. School Psychology Review, 19, 378-383. Skiba, R. J., Michael, R. S., Nardo, A. C., & Peterson, R. (2000). The color of discipline: Source of racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Education Policy Center.
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Last updated: Sep. 16, 2000
Comment: safeschl@indiana.edu
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