The Zero-Tolerance Policy

The Zero-Tolerance Policy

The Zero-Tolerance Policy

By Dr. Michelle Benson, Ed.D., FPA-BM Special Advisor

Many school districts enforce zero-tolerance rules to help ensure safety. There is an ongoing academic debate on the effectiveness of zero-tolerance. Skiba (2014) points out that for the last 20 years, fear for the welfare of our children has led us down a “no-nonsense” path of increased punishment and school exclusion in responding to school and community disruption through an approach that has come to be known as zero tolerance.

Objective of paper

The zero tolerance policy in schools created a stance that supported expulsion, detentions, or suspensions. However, this policy has been analyzed as a tool to find discrimination in our society by ways of racial profiling, and stereotyping. The objective of this paper is to iron out what the zero tolerance policy is allowing teachers, administrators, and community professionals to carry out. 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 (National Association of School Psychologists, 2015).

Definition(s) of Zero Tolerance

Gage et al., (2013) point out that zero tolerance policies are sometimes instituted to establish a clear understanding about expectations for acceptable and unacceptable student behavior. Mongan and Walker (2012) point out with the passing of the Gun Free School Act of 1994, the 1990s bore witness to the birth of zerotolerance policies.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), zero tolerance is defined as “consistently enforced suspension and expulsion policies in response to weapons, drugs, and violent acts in the school setting.”

According to Black (2015) Zero tolerance policies have expanded the categories of behavior for which a student can and must be suspended and expelled. As reflected by Kennedy-Lewis (2014) the increasing use of zero tolerance discipline policies in the USA has led to a “discipline gap,” in which minoritized students receive harsher and more frequent suspensions and expulsions than their peers from dominant cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Gage et al., (2013) state that the use of “zero tolerance,” which was first used in 1983 by the Navy with submarine crewmembers who were suspected of drug abuse.

Pros and Cons of Zero Tolerance

Zero tolerance policies within the landscape of urban education post Brown v. Board of Education present academic debate. School discipline has emerged as a critical arena in the quest for racial equity in education as a growing body of literature demonstrates that urban students of color are disproportionately subjected to punitive discipline as a result of zero tolerance policies (Triplett et al., 2014). The victims of inadvertent violations of zero tolerance policies are those students who are the subject of the news pieces highlighting the absurdities of zero tolerance (Morton, 2014).

Analysis by Triplett et al., (2014) reveals that through the mechanism of zero tolerance, a nation of urban minority students have been and continue to be punished for the actions of predominantly white, suburban/rural gunmen. Black (2015) suggests that as important as progressive policy developments are—and some are gaining momentum—past experience with contested educational practices suggests that zero tolerance and harsh discipline will remain all too prevalent unless courts intervene to protect students’ constitutional rights.

Therefore, zero tolerance and harsh discipline policies routinely violate all of the foregoing substantive due process principles (Black, 2015). Morton (2014) states that zero tolerance policies prevent administrators from fully considering the circumstances of each student, which can produce overly harsh results. Furthermore, there is no proof that these exclusionary zero tolerance policies actually make schools safer or significantly deter misbehavior.

Specific examples

In response to decreasing weapons at school, the latest issue of The Indicators of School Crime and Safety report (Robers, Zhang, & Truman, 2010) indicates that weapon possession in the total student population decreased from 12% in 1993 to 6% in 1999. That result suggests that zero-tolerance weapons policies may be an effective deterrence.

The No Child Left Behind Act (2001) extended zero tolerance policies beyond disciplinary infractions into the realm of actual educational performance. Indeed, the construction of an “at risk” and criminalized population is sutured to the narrow Criminological Complicity in the School-to-Prison Pipeline epistemology that promotes accountability through standardized testing via the neoliberal capitalist logics of accountability and individual responsibility (Schept et al., 2015).

The National Association of School Psychologists (2015) states that 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%), and tobacco (79%).

Your stance on the topic

My stance on the zero tolerance policy would stem to an alternative plan consisting of three main point: mental health counseling in schools, mandatory violence prevention training for all students, and early intervention training in controlling ones desires to break the rules. First, mental health counseling in schools can not only protect other students from the bodily harm of an out of control student, but can help parents in managing their children and families.

Second, mandatory violence prevention is just a good way to get the community involved in reducing events of school dropouts or worse, school shootings.

Finally, early intervention training can teach students to use rational thinking in hopes in reducing school violence and crime. An example of early intervention training is offered by the NASP (2015) and it states some examples of proven practices including First Step to Success (kindergarten) and Positive Adolescent Choices Training (developed for African American youth).

What should a school leader do to address behaviors that tend to be repeated in a school or district?

School leaders can simply rely on legislation behind the zero tolerance law and by the leadership of their school principal, or try to find ways in advocating for students who are innocent, or wrongly accused without over stepping their boundaries at their job. Positive Behavioral Support (PBS) is an effective framework for creating school environments that promote appropriate behavior for all students.

Within that framework, preventive methods are incorporated that address the behavior of all students, including targeted groups of students and students needing intensive individualized support (McKevitt and Braaksma (2014). Furthermore, school leaders should address the creation of more time in professional development for teachers and other staff members in the creation of a team environment whom are all on the same page about managing behavior before it escalates out of control and leads to a school shooting where people get hurt, physically and emotionally.

Do you believe zero-tolerance policies are appropriate for any and all situations? Why or why not?

I believe that zero tolerance policies are too strict. They fail to focus on a solution to unnecessary rough behavior and why these behaviors are happening. McKevitt and Braaksma (2014) point out that school policy regarding behavior should describe the proactive approach On one hand, all students no matter what their behavioral patterns should be kept at the same level of expectations regarding school behavior. However, on the other hand, not all students have the same attitudes and personalities. The zero tolerance policy is a good law, it just needs a little flexibility.


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 (NASP, 2015). Skiba (2014) states at the core of zero tolerance philosophy and policy is the presumption that strong enforcement can act as a deterrent to other potentially disruptive students. Relying primarily upon school exclusion—out-of-school suspension and expulsion and increases in security and police presence—the philosophy of zero tolerance is based on the “broken-window” theory.

The theory is that communities must react to even minor disruptions in the social order with relatively strong force in order to “send a message” that certain behaviors will not be tolerated. 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 (NASP, 2015).


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Skiba, Russell J. Reclaiming Children & Youth. Winter2014, Vol. 22 Issue 4, p27-33. 7p.

Skiba, R. J. (2000). Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice. Policy Research Report, SRS2.

The National Association of School Psychologists. (2001). Zero Tolerance and Alternative Strategies: A Fact Sheet for Educators and Policymakers. Bethesda, MD.

Triplett, Nicholas P.; Allen, Ayana; Lewis, Chance W. Journal of Negro Education. Summer2014, Vol. 83 Issue 3, p352-370. 19p.

Zero Tolerance and Alternative Strategies. Retrieved from:

The FPA-BM has as Special Advisor Dr. Michelle C. Benson, Ed.D. Dr. Michelle is a consultant, university professor and advisor to many. Dr. Michelle graduated from Northcentral University with a Doctorate in Educational Leadership. She holds a Master in Organizational Leadership/Management from Ashford University. Dr. Michelle has taught for the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Community Health for Bachelor and Master level learners. Dr. Michelle also can motivate and lead her students to career and life changing opportunities. She is a student-centered education professional and is passionate to see success in people she encounters. Dr. Michelle has authored five journal publications and is always seeking ways to add more research to existing topics in leadership, learning and management.