Education Law

What Are Zero Tolerance Policies in Schools?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
How do schools apply “zero tolerance” policies to student discipline? How do they affect your children’s education and future? Is there anything you can do to change them?

If your child is facing the possibility of being suspended from school for relatively minor misconduct, you may ask: How can this be? Chances are, it’s because the school district has a “zero tolerance” policy.

A zero tolerance policy requires school officials to hand down specific, consistent, and harsh punishment—usually suspension or expulsion—when students break certain rules. The punishment applies regardless of the circumstances, the reasons for the behavior (like self-defense), or the student’s history of discipline problems. That’s why some critics call these policies “one strike and you’re out.”

Zero Tolerance: An Idea Whose Time Has Come and Gone?

Zero tolerance policies developed in the 1990s, in response to school shootings and general fears about crime. In 1994, the federal government passed the Gun-Free Schools Act, which requires schools to expel any student who brings a gun to campus. Around the same time, the “broken windows” theory of law enforcement became popular. The idea was that cracking down on minor violations prevented serious crimes. Under similar thinking, schools started enacting disciplinary policies that went further than the federal law. The rules varied from school to school, but they commonly required suspending or expelling students for a wide range of conduct, such as:

  • bringing any weapon to school, including seemingly innocent items like nail clippers and toy swords
  • having any alcohol or drugs on campus, including tobacco and over-the-counter medications like aspirin or Midol
  • fighting, including minor scuffles
  • threatening other students or teachers, or saying anything that could be perceived as a threat
  • insubordination, which could include talking back to a teacher or swearing in the principal’s office, and
  • any behavior considered disruptive, like cutting in a lunch line.

Does Zero Tolerance Work?

Zero tolerance policies were intended to make schools safer places to learn. But researchers have not found any conclusive evidence that these policies have been effective at doing that. Meanwhile, suspension rates skyrocketed. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, one out of five middle- and high-school students will be suspended in any year. A multi-year study in Texas showed that over half of that state’s students were suspended or expelled at least once during middle and high school. Very few of these serious disciplinary responses involved weapons, and most were for the kinds of behavior that used to result in a visit to the principal’s office and a stern warning.

Research has consistently shown that suspending students—rather than helping them get back on track—makes them more likely to drop out of school and get enmeshed in the juvenile justice system. And to make matters worse, harsh school disciplinary policies aren’t applied evenly or fairly. Data collected by the federal government shows that African American students were almost four times as likely to be suspended as white students, and those with disabilities were more than two times as likely as those without disabilities to receive this punishment.

The Tide Has Turned

More and more educators have concluded that zero tolerance doesn’t work. But what are they doing instead? From Pittsfield, New Hampshire, to Oakland, California, many school districts have instituted more flexible practices like “restorative justice,” which focus on repairing harm, restoring relationships, and helping students become accountable for their actions.

What Can Parents Do?

If school officials are applying a zero tolerance policy to something your child has done, you can do several things to stay involved. The most important is to learn about your child’s rights at every stage of the discipline process, including rights under the constitution and under federal law for students with disabilities. (For more information, see our articles on students’ rights in school discipline and steps parents can take in disciplinary proceedings.)

You may want to talk to a lawyer with experience in education law for advice on how prepare for the disciplinary proceedings and protect your child’s rights.

Questions for Your Lawyer

  • Can I challenge a school’s zero tolerance policy by arguing that it discriminates against my child or violates constitutional rights to due process?
  • If the school is applying a zero tolerance policy for something my child said, can I argue that the policy violates free speech rights?
  • What can I do if school officials have applied a zero tolerance policy for behavior that was related to my child’s disability?

Go to main school discipline FAQ page.

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