A History and Critique of the Effectiveness of Zero-Tolerance Discipline

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"Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practices," Indiana Education Policy Center (2000).

This review of research provides a general overview of the history, efficacy, and alternatives to zero-tolerance policies across the country. The zero-tolerance approach to school discipline originated from the federal Gun Free Schools Act of 1994, which mandated that schools expel students found with firearms or lose federal funding. As this law has been implemented locally, zero-tolerance policies have varied considerably from district to district, and many districts have frequently extended zero-tolerance beyond any federal definitions in existence.

The article identifies two basic case types for the use of zero-tolerance that have raised controversies: 1) legitimate offenses that have been punished with overzealous severity, and 2) those involving “look-a-like” items such as toys or objects that are not weapons but were interpreted as weapons (like nail clippers), that have received severe punishments. The use of zero-tolerance in drug offenses also extends beyond any federal legislation. Overall, Skiba finds that there is little evidence supporting the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies. For example, there is no correlation between stricter security measures and reductions in school violence or students’ perceptions of school violence. Skiba finds that harsher punishments may even invoke a “go for broke” mentality in students i.e. if they know they will be suspended or expelled without question, they will try to commit the most severe form of the offense, or commit additional offenses in addition to their initial act. In response to the argument that minority students receive a disproportionate amount of punishment because they are disproportionately more likely to misbehave, Skiba finds several studies that indicate that minority students are actually less prone to serious offenses related to drugs, alcohol, vandalism, etc. and more likely to receive harsher punishments for milder, more general problems such as insubordination, class disruptiveness, loitering, etc.


Indiana Education Policy Center


Skiba, Russell J.

Sat, 01/01/2000
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