Zero Tolerance is a Zero Sum Game for Education


By Miguel Gonzalez and Cindy Long, this article originally appeared on

Zero tolerance and other exclusionary school discipline policies, which were supposed to make schools safer, have done more harm than good—pushing kids out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system at unprecedented rates, according to new research released today.

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The Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative (the Collaborative), a group of 26 nationally recognized experts from the social science, education and legal fields — finds that students of color, particularly African-Americans, are suspended at hugely disproportionate rates compared to white students. Students with disabilities and LGBT students are also suspended at higher rates than other students.

Citing data from the U.S. Department of Education, the report, How Educators Can Eradicate Disparities in School Discipline, by the Discipline Disparities Collaborative found that more than 3 million students in grades K-12 were suspended during the 2009-10 academic year, reflecting a steady rise since the 1970’s when the suspension rate was half that level. According to the Collaborative, school leaders either are so overwhelmed with money and testing demands that they gravitate toward what they perceive as “easy” discipline solutions, or else they really believe that their school environment will improve if they can just get rid of trouble-makers.

However, rather than making schools safer or improving student behavior, suspended or expelled students are more likely to disengage academically, drop out of school, and enter the juvenile justice system.

The researchers found no evidence that schools must be able to remove the “bad” students so the “good” students can learn. In fact, when schools serving similar populations were compared, those schools with relatively low suspension rates had higher, not lower, test scores.

“It is tragic and unacceptable that six decades after Brown v. Board we still haven’t achieved equality in public education; inequities still exist, including disparities in school discipline,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “Far too many of our most vulnerable students are excluded from class for minor, non-violent behavior, which puts them at great risk for academic failure, dropping out, and an unnecessary journey down the school to prison pipeline. Far too many of our teachers and school personnel lack the support and resources they need to meet their students’ developmental needs.”

Recognizing that discipline is an enormous challenge faced by educators throughout our public schools, many of which face financial constraints, high concentrations of struggling students, substantial numbers of transient teachers or long-term substitutes, and harsh accountability mandates, the Collaborative has identified promising alternatives to zero tolerance.

Cultural competence training and professional development are among the solutions – areas where NEA is a leader and already has training in place. In addition, prevention programs that build “trusting, supportive relationships between students and educators” can be applied school-wide to reduce the likelihood of conflict. And when misbehavior does occur, it can be addressed through constructive and equitable “restorative justice” policies that reduce unnecessary discipline. These strategies focus on problem-solving instead of just handing out penalties.

“All schools see a wide range of adolescent misbehavior, but school responses vary dramatically. Some schools see an educational mission in teaching appropriate behavior and are successful at improving behavior without resorting to suspension and expulsion,” says Daniel J. Losen, a member of the Collaborative and the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA. “Student accountability is achieved when students take responsibility for their actions, recognize the impact of their actions on others and offer ways to repair the harm.”

Today’s release of the Collaborative’s work follows the issuance in January of new federal guidance on school discipline policies and practices, outlining the civil rights obligations that all school systems face in administering discipline. It also provides a foundation for President Obama’s call to address school discipline issues as part of his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative to help boys of color succeed in life.

In releasing its findings, the Collaborative will publish three briefing papers, each addressed to a different audience: policy recommendations for district, state and federal officials; effective discipline alternatives for school personnel, and a description for researchers of recent studies and urgent, unanswered questions that should be addressed.

NEA is addressing the school-to-prison-pipeline by shaping policy to promote positive disciplinary options ; partnering with progressive organizations to develop resources; and educating its members through cultural competence, social justice, LGBTQ, and ELL professional development training, which is critical to closing off the pipeline.

On March 21, NEA, AFT, the Advancement Project, and the Schott Foundation Opportunity Learn Campaign will release Restorative Practices: Fostering Healthy Relationships and Promoting Positive Discipline in Schools at the first national Restorative Practices Summit in Washington, D.C.

This month, educators can also sign up to receive School Discipline Roundups from the Council for State Governments Justice Center and be added to the email list to be the first to receive the School Discipline Consensus Report to be released in April; read the School Discipline Guidance letter from the Departments of Education and Justice and link to federal resources on discipline and school climate; and visit the Advancement Project and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign, for more information and resources.

Reader Comments

  1. The High Stakes/Mandatory Testing plays a bit part in this…teachers are more likely to send any disruptive behavior to the office/out of the room. The focus is to “pass the test” so interruptions are not tolerated, and there is little time to spend one-on-one discussing behavior (rather than skills needed to pass the test). Teachers’ salaries, schools’ grades, and district success depend on test results.

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