I. Zero-tolerance Policies

In the 1990s, public discourse began to focus on the prevalence of violence in schools.   School administrators became increasingly concerned about drug use and gang activity among students, and dramatic events such as the shooting at Columbine High School further solidified fears about school safety.   In response to these problems, many schools began implementing zero-tolerance policies.   A zero-tolerance policy "mandates predetermined consequences or punishments for specific offenses."   Such policies are generally based on the assumption that removing students from schools when they behave disruptively will create peaceful learning environments and deter others from engaging in similar patterns of conduct.  

The zero-tolerance approach to school discipline was originally developed in the 1980s as a means of discouraging drug use among students.   However, the *1254 approach spread rapidly after passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994.   Under that Act, states receiving Title I funding must implement laws requiring local educational agencies to "expel from school for a period of not less than 1 year a student who is determined to have brought a firearm to a school."   Furthermore, the Act requires local educational agencies to refer students to the juvenile justice system for bringing firearms or other weapons to school.   The law effectively mandated that schools adopt zero-tolerance policies for firearms, and in implementing those policies, many school districts also created zerotolerance policies for other disciplinary infractions.  

By the 1996-1997 school year, zero tolerance had become widespread--94% of public schools reported that they had zero-tolerance policies for firearms, and 91% had zero-tolerance policies for weapons other than firearms.   Likewise, 88% of schools had zero-tolerance policies for drugs, 87% for alcohol, and 79% for violence.   This Part examines these zero-tolerance policies in greater depth, looking first at justifications for their use and then discussing critiques of the policies. Overall, it seems that zero-tolerance policies contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline by pushing disproportionate numbers of African-American and Latino students out of schools.