Thursday, March 22, 2018

Disciplinary Alternatives

Implementation of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support in Texas Youth Commission Schools

Patrick S. Metze

excerpted from: Patrick S. Metze, Plugging the School-to-prison Pipeline by Improving Behavior and Protecting Core Judicial Functions: a Constitutional Crisis Looms, 45 Saint Mary's Law Journal 37 - 72 (2013)(203 Footnotes)

In 2009, the Texas Legislature dictated that PBIS must be implemented in Texas Youth Commission TYC schools, and in response, the TYC directed all of its facilities with schools to comply. In September 2010, TYC had ten schools within which to implement PBIS; but by July 2011, only six schools remained open. Patrick MetzeUnder the new policies, children leaving TYC had to show that they possessed the "behavioral skills necessary," or that "appropriate transition supports" existed for the child to successfully "transition" to future placements. Stage progression, earning privileges, and consideration for parole were also tied to participation in PBIS.

Periodic evaluations to test the effectiveness of implementing PBIS within the TYC school system were also established. The Texas Legislature ordered a report on the effectiveness of the reading plan and the implementation of positive behavior supports by December 1, 2010. As to the implementation of PBIS, limited findings were reported, and no specific data was forthcoming except for an anecdotal comment about the improvement in attendance during the 2010-2011 school year. By January 21, 2011, the Executive Director of TYC reported to the Board that PBIS was implemented at all TYC educational facilities.

In compliance with the legislative order, the final report on the effectiveness of PBIS was filed on December 2, 2012. This "exhaustive" twenty-three-page report included a three-page introduction giving a generic summary of the PBIS framework, structure, purposes, historical ties to its cousin--Response to Intervention, and a three-page restatement of the December 2010 report. The only new development during the implementation period was the selection of an instrument to monitor, assess, set goals, evaluate, and revise procedures "toward effective implementation" of PBIS. The data in the report was evaluated using an advanced method of comparing data per student, per *45 month, and per facility with "(1) [m] ajor incidents[,] (2) [r]eferrals to security[, and] (3) [a]dmissions to security."

The Executive Summary of the report summarized TJJD's conclusions on the effectiveness of PBIS implementation. The following section of this paper analyzes the major findings of the report; a look at each finding is revealing. First, TJJD stated, "PBIS appears to be having an impact on the behavior and academic outcomes of youth in secure facilities."

Tex. Juvenile Justice Dep't, Effectiveness of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, A Report to the Texas Legislature 8 (Dec. 2012). TJJD asserted that "[t]he number of incidents, both minor and major, are four times higher in non-school settings than in school, where PBIS has been implemented." PBIS was implemented in the second quarter of fiscal year 2011, which includes December 2010, January 2011, and February 2011. At that time, the number of major incidents--reflecting injury or use of force--in non-school settings was six times higher than major incidents in school settings. During the first fifteen months of *46 PBIS implementation, non-school incidents were ten and eleven times higher, indicating a significant reduction in the number of incidents requiring a written citation. The first year saw a 37% reduction in major incident reports in the school setting and a 17% increase in reports in the non-school environments. Admittedly, these calculations do not take into account any increase or decrease in youth population, or other variables such as staff training and ratio. Nevertheless, to see these trends going in the right direction should encourage TJJD to implement PBIS in non-school settings as soon as possible.E

*47 The fact that the TJJD stopped providing specific numbers and used ill-defined bar graphs makes specific analysis difficult. However, a few assumptions can be made with reasonable certainty. As to the total incidents reflected in the graph on page nine of the report, it is apparent that for each quarter following implementation, the total number of incidents, major and minor, decreased in both non-school and school settings.

Between mid-2011 and mid-2012, four of six TYC schools showed marked reductions in the average school disciplinary referrals per student.

Of the six types of school infractions during this same period, there were discernible decreases in at least two types of infractions, namely disruption of program and self-referral to security. The size of the graph and the lack of specifics provided make it difficult to evaluate any progress in the other types of infractions, which include presence in an unauthorized area, refusing instructions, threatening others, and assault without injury.

TJJD found it significant that the percentage of special education students receiving disciplinary referrals dropped from 53.3% of the total referrals to 50.4% during the implementation period.

*49 In the glass is half-full category, TJJD also found it significant that fewer Hispanic and Anglo students received disciplinary referrals. However, the number of disciplinary referrals for African-American students increased considerably.

On a positive note, the use of aversive control measures decreased during the implementation period, which is encouraging.

TJJD was proud of the increase in the average daily attendance (ADA), as well as academic performance "in all categories of measured outcomes."

Two final areas were encouraging as far as the effectiveness of PBIS. *51 During the implementation period, "[five] of [six] schools . . . saw a reduction of time per student outside the regular classroom for disciplinary reasons." Almost immediately upon implementation of PBIS, four of those five schools saw a significant drop in absences due to discipline.

From the 2009-2010 school year until the end of the 2011-2012 school year, there was improvement in the percentage of students making one-month reading and math gains per month of instruction.

During this same period, "41.43[%] of youth aged [sixteen] or older earned a high school diploma or GED within [ninety] days of release from *52 a TJJD institution." Finally, the percentage of students with grade level reading ability upon release from a TYC facility increased from 12.7% in the 2009-2010 school year to 16.27% in the 2011-2012 school year.

Unfortunately, TJJD did not provide more specific data in its report. Nonetheless, I hope PBIS will continue to improve the behavior of juveniles in its facilities. While the future of TJJD and its role in all aspects of juvenile justice remains unclear, TJJD's recent history makes its institutional history less than impressive. The history of how Texas deals with the juvenile delinquent, or a juvenile on his or her way to delinquency, is a dichotomy of treatment and punishment. With the implementation of PBIS, Texas has correctly shifted its focus to the treatment function. However, our modern approach has been long coming, and if recent constitutional issues are not addressed, I fear we will choose punishment over enlightenment once again.

 Professor of Law, Director, Criminal Clinics at Texas Tech University School of Law. B.A. Texas Tech University 1970; J.D., The University of Houston 1973.


Exclusion, Punishment, Racism and Our Schools: A Critical Race Theory Perspective on School Discipline

David Simson

excerpted from: David Simson, Exclusion, Punishment, Racism and Our Schools: a Critical Race Theory Perspective on School Discipline, 61 UCLA Law Review 506 - 563 (January, 2014) (279 Footnotes).




Education policy reflects philosophical judgments about the kinds of social outcomes, and indeed the kinds of people that society deems desirable. Educational philosophy, in this David Simsonrespect, represents society's self-conception. The capacities and competencies society inculcates in its children--and just as important, those it does not--reveal a society's ultimate vision of itself.

[W]e should be concerned, not with the meanings associated with conduct, but rather with the meanings associated with race itself.

The use of exclusionary discipline policies in American schools has become increasingly prevalent over the last three decades. Before the 1960s, schools used corporal punishment and public embarrassment to discipline students. But with the growth in student population caused by the entry of the baby boom generation into American schools, and the influence of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements on people's willingness to engage in civil disobedience, out-of-school suspensions and expulsions became more prevalent. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as Goss v. Lopez caused school policies to shift in favor of in-school suspensions. These decisions instituted due process protections for students, which substantially restricted school administrators' discretion in implementing exclusionary discipline policies. In the late 1980s to early 1990s, schools once again shifted toward a heavy reliance on out-of-school suspensions when they began to institute the punitive zero tolerance policies that are prevalent in American schools today.

*509 The move toward zero tolerance policies was initially a response to fears over increasing violence, drug-related problems, and gang activity. Eventually, the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 and its later versions inscribed these harsh policies into federal law by conditioning federal funding on mandatory one-year expulsions of students who committed specified firearm offenses. Though the federal call for mandatory expulsion was limited to specific firearms and allowed for some discretion in application of the policy, many states have expanded the scope of their zero tolerance policies widely beyond this initial reach. Today, the potential applications of zero tolerance policies are almost endless, varying from state to state and even school to school. The broad implementation of these policies across the nation has resulted in numerous stories of nonsensical applications of the policies. Most alarmingly, minority youth, and especially African American youth, are disproportionately disciplined under this punitive regime and suffer most harshly from its consequences.

Yet "in the light of the exceedingly limited rights of public school students facing school discipline," punitive school discipline policies have survived attack *510 via litigation almost unscathed and likely cannot be challenged effectively in the courts on a broad scale moving forward. As a general matter, courts usually grant school officials a large amount of discretion in handling disciplinary problems at their schools and "tend to defer to school officials when it comes to disciplinary matters" except in extreme circumstances. Furthermore, federal constitutional and statutory law is not particularly supportive of far-reaching challenges to punitive school discipline policies.

Plaintiffs can challenge punitive school discipline policies under either substantive or procedural due process theories under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Such challenges claim that a student's right to an education has been infringed either without sufficient substantive justification or without sufficient procedural protection.

Though substantive due process challenges once stood a fighting chance in the courts, the Supreme Court greatly reduced prospects of their success in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, which ruled that education is not a fundamental right protected by the Constitution. Therefore, plaintiffs can successfully challenge punitive school discipline policies and their applications only when they can "show an extraordinary departure from established norms that is wholly arbitrary." If the school "provides some reasonable justification for its policy or decision, it will likely withstand judicial scrutiny," and, in light of the large amount of discretion courts generally grant to schools in matters of educational policy, courts will likely find reasonable justifications for most instances of harsh discipline.

*511 Procedural due process claims are also unlikely to succeed, as the procedural protections that schools must provide to students who are suspended under a punitive disciplinary policy are minimal. Furthermore, procedural protections do not strike at "the underlying problem--namely, the overarching use of punitive discipline as the primary mechanism for addressing problematic behavior." Thus, procedural due process claims can prevent only the most egregious practices by school districts because most schools will simply "provide the basic due process requirements and summarily discharge students."

Recognizing that challenges to punitive school discipline policies as such are not likely to succeed, plaintiffs might attempt to challenge these policies under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for their racially disproportionate impact. Here too, however, Supreme Court and lower court rulings have made successful legal challenges highly unlikely, even if punitive discipline policies disproportionately affect racial minority students in a particular case.

With regards to the Equal Protection Clause, the Supreme Court established in Washington v. Davis that a successful challenge to an alleged racially discriminatory state action must include a showing of discriminatory intent or of discriminatory purpose by the decisionmaker. Courts have subsequently ruled that this requirement is satisfied only when "the decisionmaker . . . selected or reaffirmed a particular course of action at least in part because of,' not merely in spite of,' its adverse effects upon an identifiable group." While courts may consider factors other than direct evidence of discriminatory intent in determining whether the intent requirement has been satisfied--such as discriminatory impact so large as to be "unexplainable on grounds other than race"; the historical background of a decision; the sequence of events leading up to the decision, especially when there have been departures from usual procedures; or applicable legislative or administrative history types of evidence will either be difficult to obtain [in school discipline *512 cases] or will not be influential enough to persuade a court that a school or district has violated the Federal Equal Protection Clause" even when clear statistical disparities in suspension numbers exist. Courts typically require some evidence that similarly situated whites were treated differently from minority students and are very stringent about what kind of evidence they will accept to fulfill this requirement. All of this makes a successful claim under the Equal Protection Clause highly unlikely.

Claims under Title VI are also unlikely to succeed. For one thing, the Supreme Court has interpreted the statute itself to prohibit only intentional discrimination. Courts implementing Title VI proceed under a similar analysis in evaluating proof of actionable discriminatory intent as they do under the Equal Protection Clause, and thus it is similarly difficult for plaintiffs challenging punitive school discipline policies to show such intent. While there are administrative regulations implementing Title VI that, in theory, allow for claims based on a disparate impact theory without a showing of discriminatory intent, the Supreme Court held in Alexander v. Sandoval that there is no implied private right of action to enforce such regulations. This means that private plaintiffs must base any challenge to a school's policy on the statutory language of Title VI--which does not allow for a disparate impact challenge but instead requires a very difficult showing of discriminatory intent--and cannot base their lawsuits on regulations implementing the statute--which do allow for a disparate impact challenge without a showing of discriminatory intent. This leaves the federal government as the sole enforcer of Title VI regulations. Yet the agency in charge of doing the enforcing--the Office of Civil Rights within the *513 Department of Education--"does not appear to regularly apply the adverse impact doctrine in complaint investigations and determinations" but rather seems to "process[] complaints under the more rigid intentional discrimination standard."

While state constitutions and statutes might afford greater protections for students' educational rights, and thus potentially provide a more useful basis for individual lawsuits, these avenues for challenging punitive school discipline policies reach only as far as the states in which they are enacted. Litigation based on such laws could provide useful relief for local beneficiaries, but it will not address the root cause of a nationwide punitive approach to disciplining students.

Notwithstanding the difficulty of challenging punitive school discipline policies in the courts, this Comment argues that such policies need to be replaced. These policies are not only ineffective in creating an environment conducive to the academic and social development of all children but also contribute to many pervasive and systemic problems that disproportionately affect minority communities and African American youth in particular.

To illustrate this point, Part I presents the main societal problems that have been associated with the increased use of zero tolerance in American schools. It presents the latest data on school discipline outcomes nationwide and compares such data with earlier studies on zero tolerance school disciplinary policies to demonstrate that little progress has been made toward the goal of creating both safe and effective learning environments for American children. In this context, Part I also highlights the troubling numbers relating to the treatment of minorities under the regime of zero tolerance policies in schools. It then takes this empirical overview and situates today's punitive school discipline policies within the discourse on a number of widely acknowledged school-related social issues that, once more, disproportionately affect minority communities: the school-to-prison pipeline; high school dropout rates; the push-out phenomenon; and the criminalization of schools.

Because a comprehensive remedy to these systemic issues cannot be expected to come from efforts in the courts, alternative strategies to soften and to reverse the negative impact that punitive school discipline imposes on students, and especially minority students, will have to based on voluntary measures--measures that can be implemented based on the very discretion and educational *514 judgment of local educators that has partially insulated zero tolerance from broad legal challenge. In developing such effective measures, educators and policymakers need a better understanding of the intricacies of the process that is supporting the punitive status quo of school discipline in the first place.

Accordingly, Part II uses the bleak picture of racial disproportionality in school discipline developed in Part I as a point of departure and sets forth a theoretical framework based on concepts developed in the field of Critical Race Theory, which can help explain why such disproportionality exists. It argues that punitive school discipline policies serve as a tool that perpetuates, reenacts, and polices the boundaries of deeply engrained American racial hierarchies.

In construing this theoretical framework, Part II takes up the notion of racial stigma. It surveys the history of American race relations, with a particular focus on how African Americans were branded as inferior, not truly belonging to the American social fabric, and a threat to white privilege and to white control. It then examines how stigma interacts with the social psychology phenomenon of implicit bias and how both processes influence and create the troubling phenomenon that minority students, and especially African American youth, are disproportionately disciplined for subjective offenses such as defiance and disrespect for authority.

Racial stigma and implicit bias are then linked to normative baselines and the so-called acting white phenomenon. I argue that stereotyping and implicit biases arising from a long history of racial prejudice and dominance continue to infuse seemingly objective standards of what is considered appropriate behavior as well as the practices--such as punitive school discipline--that are used to enforce such standards. These practices, again, lead to disproportionate disciplining of minority students, especially for low-level behavioral offenses.

Finally, Part III offers Restorative Justice as an alternative to the current disciplinary framework and argues that Restorative Justice-based practices are more helpful in addressing the issues described in Parts I and II than current punitive policies. Part III details the particular methods employed by Restorative Justice programs in schools and marshals data from these schools to bolster the claim that under a Restorative Justice framework it is possible to ensure school safety and a positive school environment while at the same time showing genuine concern for the problems of both victims and perpetrators of inappropriate juvenile behavior as well as the victims of continuing racial bias. Part III argues that Restorative Justice-based disciplinary policies are consistent with core principles of Critical Race Theory and are more conducive to creating a *515 nurturing, safe, and inclusive school environment because they address the root causes of problematic juvenile behavior, broaden the understanding of the harms that result from such behavior, expand the community of stakeholders that is involved in addressing issues of misbehavior at school, and give a real voice to all participants in a disciplinary incident.

* * *

Punitive approaches to school discipline such as zero tolerance policies have failed America's youth. They are robbing students of needed educational opportunities and are contributing to a wide variety of social problems. Not only that, but racial minorities--especially African Americans--who are already the most vulnerable to societal maltreatment, are hit hardest by such policies. This is not surprising given the long history of stigmatization, dehumanization, and prejudice that American society has directed toward such minorities. Improper racial stereotypes and implicit bias continue to distort our perception and evaluation of others' behaviors, and thus negatively affect our decisionmaking regarding how to respond to instances of what the majority considers inappropriate behavior. Such processes seem to be at work in disciplinary *563 decisionmaking in this country's primary and secondary schools, and have led to serious negative and disproportionate treatment of African American youth, kicking them out of schools as if they do not belong there in the first place. This needs to change. One way it could change is through the implementation of Restorative Justice principles into the ways in which schools administer their disciplinary codes. Restorative Justice has shown promise not only in reducing the overt manifestations of punitive policies, such as suspension numbers, but also in exhibiting conceptual strengths that can counter the processes underlying racial discrimination in the United States more broadly. Restorative Justice deserves a chance to help remediate the damage caused by zero tolerance policies and to undermine the sources of racial conflict that have plagued this nation for too long.

The Impact of Zero Tolerance School Discipline Policies: Issues of Exclusionary Discipline

Amy C. Nelson 

From: Amy C. Nelson,  The Impact of Zero Tolerance School Discipline Policies: Issues of Exclusionary Discipline,  37(4) NASP Communiqué  (December 2008) (Last Visited: April 13. 2014)

In 1977, a Safe School Study conducted by the U.S. Congress raised awareness of school violence and caused a wave of actions still in effect today. In their examination of American schools, they found that 282,000 students reported incidences of assault or harassment each month. Students were not alone; over 5,000 teachers reported being assaulted each month as well.

What did this report claim are the contributors to school violence? Casella (2001) pointed out that the Safe School Study made four important assertions. First, crime in the neighborhoods surrounding schools has been identified as a large contributor to violence in the schools. Violence from the outside is being brought in behind school walls. Second, large class sizes also contribute. It is harder for teachers to manage large classrooms resulting in less student monitoring. Third, when school administration does not consistently enforce school policy, violence proliferates. Students pay less attention to school rules and, therefore, do not adhere to them. Devine (1996) refers to this as the “marshmallow effect.” A lax school policy causes students to not take authority seriously. Lastly, the report claimed that the discipline policies established in many schools was discriminatory. As a result, more violence erupts in response to an unjust system.

School Violence Policies are Discriminatory?

Some now argue that school discipline policies, in response to violence issues, are biased and actually make matters worse. Marxist and critical theorists have addressed how biased systems contribute to school violence (Casella, 2001). Essentially, views of violence are shaped by class experiences and the neighborhood in which one lives. To many, violence is viewed as a consequence of poverty. Duncan and Brooks-Gunn (2000) found that poor children are 2.2 times more likely to experience a violent crime. This implies that poor neighborhoods are exposed to more violent episodes, which in turn, affect the school culture in those areas.

Immigrants and minorities have been at the forefront when it comes to stereotypes with regard to violence (Casella, 2001). Common attitudes are often racist and classist. Many individuals believe that only minorities and the poor commit violent acts. Some theorists argue that school violence is a protest against the inequities in the system, such as unequal distributions of educational funds and a curriculum that only caters to White middle-class individuals. Therefore, students are rebelling against schools, and each other, in order to voice their feelings of injustice.

Fenning and Rose (2007) also attribute high rates of school suspension and expulsion rates to racism and bias, specifically institutional racism. School policies are often designed by individuals raised with White middle-class values and the assumption is made that all students are raised with a similar perspective. In their research, Fenning and Rose discovered that minority students were more likely to be suspended for nonviolent issues, such as class disruption and disrespecting teacher authority. Thus, these students are more likely to be punished because of teacher lack of behavior management, lack of connection with the teacher or school, or unclear classroom rules. Yet, when punishing students, schools fail to examine whether student disrespect could be the result of school factors as well. Delpit (1995) also believes that cultural differences between students and teachers cause increases in referrals, including discipline and special education, because of biases held by teachers. Delpit argues that schools are often structured from a White middle-class perspective and if teachers are not direct and clear in their expectations, students who do not come from a White or middle-class background are at a disadvantage. Students who are less knowledgeable of the rules are then more likely to be referred to the office and receive punishment, when in reality it was a result of cultural miscommunication.

Is Zero Tolerance Effective?

Despite legislative support for zero tolerance, the policy fails to show effectiveness (Skiba, 2004; Casella, 2003). Skiba (2004) argues that the assumptions underlying zero tolerance have never been met and its purpose was never fulfilled. Initially, it was designed to be part of a comprehensive prevention program. However, many schools focused only on the punitive aspect and failed to implement prevention programs. Zero tolerance was not intended to work in isolation.

Casella (2003) also examines the effectiveness of zero tolerance policies among urban students. Although research has found that zero tolerance is related to an improvement in the rates of violence in schools, he claims that minority students are at a disadvantage as a result of this kind of policy. Latino and African American students are more likely to suffer the punishments of zero tolerance because of issues of institutional racism previously mentioned. Specifically, Latino and African American students are more likely to live in poverty and reside in dangerous neighborhoods. Consequently, these students are more likely to be punished and are less resilient to the social consequences of suspension and expulsion. Casella finds that zero tolerance only punishes those who need the most help: the poor, underachieving, socially isolated students coming from violent homes and neighborhoods. So one may argue that school violence rates are decreasing, but troubled students are out on the streets. Casella states:

[F]or some, zero tolerance adds another risk factor to lives that are already overburdened with risk factors. Although some students may have the support and know-how to wrangle and maneuver their way back to success after an expulsion or suspension, other students cannot. (p. 881)

Experts are also stating that exclusive discipline has negative side effects that cannot be ignored. Stinchcomb, Bazemore, and Riestenberg (2006) argue that, “increasingly well-documented side effects of this remedy may be worse than the cure” (p. 128). They review the work of Costenbader and Markson (1998) who found that the side effects of in-school and out-of-school suspension were harmful. For example, Costenbader and Markson contend that students in these contexts exhibited increases in socioemotional behavioral issues, such as withdrawal and avoidance of school staff and stigmatization among peers, and decreased academic performance. Suspensions, in essence, did more harm than good.

School to Prison Pipeline

Students who experience excessive suspension and expulsion are more likely to become part of the school to prison pipeline (Fenning & Rose, 2007). Many authors are now examining the issue of the school to prison pipeline and trying to understand how students who drop out (or are pushed out) of high school are more likely to enter the prison system (Fine, 1991). Push out is a term that is used to describe students who dropped out of school because of actions or barriers put up by their school. Their school might have committed actions that made the student feel like they did not belong in school, were not intelligent enough to finish, or that school was a negative and stressful place. Many school psychologists have probably experienced a teacher who was out of line and called a student “stupid” or interacted with them in a harsher way than necessary, making them feel alienated. These students are more likely to drop out of school because they lack connection with school personnel and feel negative about themselves every time they come to school.

The issue of the school to prison pipeline becomes important as we consider the disproportionate effect of suspension and expulsion on ethnic and socioeconomic minorities and the well-known issue of the disproportionate number of African American males in the criminal justice system. When students are not in school, they are most likely subject to negative influences in their neighborhoods. For many students, their school is the safest environment for them. When they are not permitted in their schools they are left to the devices of the community, which is not always the most positive influence. As a result, students may become involved in possible illegal activities, get arrested, and go to jail.

It is difficult to believe that schools could have something to do with the high numbers of minority students going to prison or getting incarcerated. Regardless, schools need to consider how their school discipline practices are biased, and in some cases discriminatory. As school psychologists, we are in a unique position to lead system-wide efforts in changing school policies to make them fairer for all students. Until the issue is raised, schools will continue to deny their hand in pushing students who do not “fit in” with the system out of schools.

Amy C. Nelson is a doctoral student in the Urban Education/School Psychology program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.


Casella, R. (2003). Zero Tolerance policy in schools: Rationale, consequences, and alternatives.
Teachers College Record, 105, 872–892

Casella, R. (2001). Being down: Challenging violence in urban schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Costenbader, V., & Markson, S. (1998). School suspension: A study with secondary school students. Journal of School Psychology, 36, 59–82.

Delpit, L. D. (1995). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York, NY: The New Press.

Devine, J. (1996). Maximum security: The culture of violence in inner-city schools. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Duncan, G. J., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2000). Family poverty, welfare reform, and child development. Child Development, 71, 188–196.

Fenning, P., & Rose, J. (2007). Overrepresentation of African American students in exclusionary discipline: The role of school policy. Urban Education, 42, 536–559.

Fine, M. (1991). Framing dropouts: Notes on the politics of an urban public high school. New York, NY: State University of New York Press.

Skiba, R. (2004). Zero Tolerance: The assumptions and the facts. Education Policy Briefs, 2(1), 1–8

Stinchcomb, J., Bazemore, G., & Riestenberg, N. (2006). Beyond zero-tolerance: Restoring justice in secondary schools. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 4, 123–147.

Zero Tolerance and Alternative Strategies: A Fact Sheet for Educators and Policymakers

National Association of School Psychologists

What is Zero Tolerance?

"Zero Tolerance" initially was defined as consistently enforced suspension and expulsion policies in response to weapons, drugs and violent acts in the school setting. Over time, however, zero tolerance has come to refer to school or district-wide policies that mandate predetermined, typically harsh consequences or punishments (such as suspension and expulsion) for a wide degree of rule violation. Most frequently, zero tolerance policies address drug, weapons, violence, smoking and school disruption in efforts to protect all students' safety and maintain a school environment that is conducive to learning. Some teachers and administrators favor zero tolerance policies because they remove difficult students from school; administrators perceive zero tolerance policies as fast-acting interventions that send a clear, consistent message that certain behaviors are not acceptable in the school. However, research indicates that, as implemented, zero tolerance policies are ineffective in the long run and are related to a number of negative consequences, including increased rates of school drop out and discriminatory application of school discipline practices. Proven discipline strategies that provide more effective alternatives to broad zero tolerance policies should be implemented to ensure that all students have access to an appropriate education in a safe environment.

Prevalence of Zero Tolerance Policies and Practices

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education and the Center for Safe and Responsive Schools, at least 75% of schools report having zero tolerance policies for such serious offenses as:

  • •firearms (94%)
  • •weapons other than firearms (91%)
  • •alcohol (87%)
  • •drugs (88%)
  • •violence (79%)
  • •tobacco (79%)

Among disciplinary actions mandated by zero tolerance policies, suspension is most frequently used for an extensive range of common offenses, from attendance problems to disrespect and noncompliance. However, broad zero tolerance policies require that both minor and major disciplinary events be treated equally. A 1997 U.S. Department of Education study found that zero tolerance offenses frequently resulted in suspension or expulsion, including a) possession or use of a firearm (80%), b) possession or use of a weapon other than a firearm (78%), c) possession or distribution of alcohol, drugs or tobacco (80%) and d) physical fighting (81%).

Problems Associated with Broad Zero Tolerance Policies

Zero tolerance policies are complex, costly and generally ineffective.  Suspension and expulsion may set individuals who already display antisocial behavior on an accelerated course to delinquency by putting them in a situation in which there is a lack of parental supervision and a greater opportunity to socialize with other deviant peers. Further, expulsion results in the denial of educational services, presenting specific legal as well as ethical dilemmas for student with disabilities. Finally, there is no evidence that removing students from school makes a positive contribution to school safety.

Other problems associated with zero tolerance policies include:

  • •Racial disproportionality: Black students receive more harsh punitive measures (suspension, expulsion, corporal punishment) and less mild discipline than their non-minority peers, even controlling for Socio-economic Status.
  • •A greater negative impact on educational outcomes for students with disabilities (see below)
  • •Inconsistent application of zero tolerance policies, which often are not reserved exclusively for serious behaviors but applied indiscriminately to much lower levels of rule infraction.
  • •An increasing rate of suspensions and expulsions throughout the country, even though school violence generally has been stable or declining.
  • •Increasing the length of expulsion to two-year, three-year, or even permanent expulsion.
  • •A high rate of repeat suspensions that may indicate that suspension is ineffective in changing behavior for challenging students.
  • •Elevated dropout rates related to the repeated use of suspension and expulsion - the most likely consequence of suspension is additional suspension.

Zero Tolerance and Students With Special Needs

Zero tolerance policies may negatively impact students with disabilities to a greater degree than students without special needs. Although IDEA '97 requires continuing educational services for any student with a disability who is suspended for more than 10 consecutive days or 10 cumulative days in one academic year, policies that require suspension or expulsion for certain behaviors put many students with disabilities outside of the education setting, apart from educators who could help address their needs. Further, discipline practices that restrict access to appropriate education often exacerbate the problems of students with disabilities, increasing the probability that these students will not complete high school.  School personnel charged with disciplining students with disabilities must be familiar with relevant components of IDEA '97, including the provisions for Interim Alternative Educational Placements (see resources below). Other alternatives are mandated by federal and state statute to assure that students with disabilities have ongoing access to an appropriate education.

Alternatives to Zero Tolerance Policies

Systemic changes in a school's or district's approach to discipline and behavioral intervention can significantly impact school climate and student learning.  Schools implementing effective strategies have reported reductions in office discipline referrals by 20-60%; this results in improved access to academic engaged time and improved academic performance for all students. Schools can utilize their mental health experts - school psychologists, counselors and social workers - to research and develop discipline policies and positive behavior training strategies. Effective and promising alternatives to zero tolerance should involve families and community resources, including:

  • Violence prevention - the most frequent components of a violence prevention program include a prevention curriculum; services from school psychologists, counselors or social workers; family and community involvement; and implementation of effective school-wide discipline practices. Some examples of proven programs include: Second Step, Resolving Conflict Creatively Program and Promoting Positive Thinking Strategies (see below).
  • Social skills training and positive behavioral supports - interventions that help students with emotional/behavioral disorders and social skills deficits have potential to significantly improve school-wide behavior and safety.  Effective programs include: Stop and Think (Project ACHIEVE) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).
  • Early intervention strategies - interventions that target low levels of inappropriate behavior before they escalate into violence can significantly reduce the need for harsh consequences later. Examples of proven practices include First Step to Success (kindergarten) and Positive Adolescent Choices Training (developed for African American youth).


Although zero tolerance policies were developed to assure consistent and firm consequences for dangerous behaviors, broad application of these policies has resulted in a range of negative outcomes with few if any benefits to students or the school community. Rather than increasing school safety, zero tolerance often leads to indiscriminate suspensions and expulsions for both serious and mild infractions and disproportionately impacts students from minority status backgrounds and those with disabilities. Serious dangerous behaviors require consistent and firm consequences to protect the safety of students and staff; however, for many offenses addressed by zero tolerance policies, more effective alternative strategies are available. Systemic school-wide violence prevention programs, social skills curricula and positive behavioral supports lead to improved learning for all students and safer school communities.


  • •Bear, G., Quinn, M. & Burkholder, S. (2001). Interim alternative educational settings for children with disabilities. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists. (NASP ASPIIRE Project, IDEA Partnerships). Available at:
  • •NASP National Mental Health and Education Center for Children and
  • •Safe and Responsive Schools
  • •Skiba, R. (2000).  Zero tolerance, zero evidence: An analysis of school disciplinary practice (Policy Research Report #SRS2). Bloomington, IN: Indiana Education Policy Center. (available at:
  • •U.S. Department of Education (1997).  Principal/School Disciplinarian Survey on School Violence. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.


©2001--National Association of School Psychologists - 4340 East West Highway #402, Bethesda, MD 20814

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