School Discipline: the Zero Tolerance Policy for the Public Schools

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School discipline policy represents an important mechanism by which schools meet their obligation to maintain a safe learning environment for all students (Cornell & Mayer, 2010). During the 2009 school year, over one in three schools utilized suspensions, expulsions, or other removals from the learning environment as a form of disciplinary action (Robers et al., 2015). The use of such exclusionary discipline has been described as adhering to a “zero tolerance” approach to maintaining school safety (Skiba, Reynolds, Graham, Sheras, Conoley, & GarciaVazquez, 2006). Despite wide-spread use, the term “zero tolerance”, however, has been used in a number of ways across different contexts, complicating efforts to measure its prevalence and characteristics. Exclusion, in the form of suspensions and expulsions has long been a staple of public school discipline. 

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Seminal court cases such as Goss v. Lopez (1975) have defined processes schools must follow when removing students from school, such as due process prior to exclusion. Likewise, federal law including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) impose limits and protections, especially for at-risk groups, when it comes to disciplinary exclusion (2004). Even with such boundaries, however, the use of suspension and expulsion has increased since the 1970s (Losen et al., 2015). Such an increase has taken place despite increased emphasis on students’ rights and decreases in use of other traditional forms of discipline such as corporal punishment (Arum, 2005). Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the term “zero tolerance” became a popular description for the fast-spreading approach to discipline which emphasized severe and Running head: ZERO TOLERANCE: LAW, POLICY, PORTRAYAL 3 uncompromising punishment (Richards, 2004). This disciplinary shift relied heavily on the use of exclusionary practices like suspension and expulsion. The term “zero tolerance” was borrowed, in part, from the field of criminal justice which was applying the term to a number of policies aimed at drug and weapon infractions (Skiba & Knesting, 2001). 

The concept of broken windows policing had been put forth in the early 1980s and had prompted a focus on the policing of minor infractions (Wilson & Kelling, 1982). School discipline policy began to reflect this broader policy environment and societal view towards punishment, as school districts and some states adopted the use of the term “zero tolerance” and policies that favored punitive approaches, particularly exclusion, to behavioral infractions (Skiba & Knesting, 2001). In 1994, this exclusionary approach to discipline would be further promoted through federal law as the Gun-Free Schools Act, which mandated a one year expulsion for possession of a firearm on school property (Gun-Free Schools Act, 1994). After the passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act, states moved to enact similar legislation to maintain federal funding, resulting in state laws that expanded the provision to weapon, drug, and assault offenses (Richards, 2004). By the late 1990s, virtually every state had legislation implementing the federal Gun-Free Schools Act (Curran, 2016a; Richards, 2004), and nearly every school district in the country reported having a zero-tolerance disciplinary policy for weapons and other serious infractions (Heaviside, Rowand, Williams, & Farris, 1998; Welch & Payne, 2012). 

While zero-tolerance policies arose from legislation aimed at serious infractions such as weapons, popular media, and other stakeholders have applied the term to a broader range of disciplinary actions. Reporters quote teachers who state that “Any behavior that got a student sent to the principal’s office almost automatically resulted in suspension” (Stucki, 2014, para. 2). Others refer to zero tolerance policies as promoting the “school to prison pipeline” through the Running head: ZERO TOLERANCE: LAW, POLICY, PORTRAYAL 4 punishment of “minor infractions” (Kamenetz, 2014, para. 5). Scholars have applied the term to describe school environments with security measures such as security cameras or metal detectors (Skiba, 2000). The American Psychological Association’s (APA) Zero Tolerance Task Force described zero tolerance as a “philosophy or policy that mandates the application of predetermined consequences, most often severe and punitive in nature, that are intended to be applied regardless of the gravity of behavior, mitigating circumstances, or situational context” (American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008, p.1). In one of the broadest descriptions, a recent publication by the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization, defined zero tolerance as “shorthand for all punitive school discipline policies and practices” (Advancement Project, 2010). 

These descriptions contrast with the definition of zero tolerance policies provided by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) which states that “a zero tolerance policy is a policy that results in mandatory expulsion of any student who commits one or more specified offenses (for example, offenses involving guns, or other weapons, or violence, or similar factors, or combinations of these factors)” (Office for Civil Rights, 2014, p. 2). Such ambiguity in the use of the term “zero tolerance” in legal codifications, school policies, and public discussion potentially complicates measurement of the prevalence and characteristics of such policies. Such a complication was recognized by the APA Task Force on Zero Tolerance when they noted that “the lack of a single definition of zero tolerance makes it difficult to estimate how prevalent such policies may be” (Skiba et al., 2006, p.2). Given the ongoing policy focus on zero tolerance and ambiguities in its definition, there is a need for research that examines zero tolerance discipline across definitional divides and across policy contexts. 

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