New Report on Zero Tolerance: Stop Expelling Kids for Ridiculous Nonsense


Opposition to "zero tolerance" school disciplinary policies continues to grow. A comprehensive new report urges schools to stop kicking students out of class and arresting them for committing trivial offenses.

The 400-page School Discipline Consensus Report was published by the Council of State Governments Justice Center. The U.S. Department of Justice paid for roughly half the project's $2 million cost.

Chief among the report's many recommendations is scaling back the incessant suspensions and expulsions handed down by school administrators over minor and even accidental rule infractions:

Research and data on school discipline practices are clear: millions of students are being removed from their classrooms each year, mostly in middle and high schools, and overwhelmingly for minor misconduct. When suspended, these students are at a significantly higher risk of falling behind academically, dropping out of school, and coming into contact with the juvenile justice system. A disproportionately large percentage of disciplined students are youth of color, students with disabilities, and youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT).

There is no question that when students commit serious offenses or pose a threat to school safety they may need to be removed from the campus or arrested. Such incidents, however, are relatively rare, and school typically remains the safest place a young person can be during the day. In schools with high rates of suspension for minor offenses, however, students and teachers often feel they are not safe or supported in their learning environment.

Zero tolerance policies arose during the '90s as part of a tough-on-crime approach to school violence, which was perceived to be increasing.

Nowadays, news stories about students ill-served by such policies pop up constantly. They include a student expelled and arrested for forgetting to take his fishing supplies out of his car before heading to school. Another suspended for a harmless science experiment. A third student was suspended for chewing a Pop-tart into the shape of a gun. Every day, students lose class time for committing slight offenses. Sometimes, these offenses involve the police, court proceedings, and even short jail stints.

But as the report points out, when schools involve law enforcement in routine and minor disciplinary actions, students feel like criminals. Exposing kids—especially at-risk kids—to the criminal justice system as a penalty for slipping up in school is a surefire way to ruin their futures, notes Pedro Noguera, a New York University education professor, in The Wall Street Journal:

"It's the most disadvantaged, most vulnerable kids who are being denied learning time in the guise of discipline," Mr. Noguera said, adding that some schools suspend students for truancy. "These are the kids who don't like to be in school anyway, and you're sending them home to watch television?"

A groundswell of dissatisfaction with zero tolerance policies has prompted legislators in several states to instruct school districts to abandon them. This effort has largely been bipartisan, and even President Obama's Department of Justice has advised schools to move away from zero tolerance.