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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.