Zero-Tolerance Policies and the School to Prison Pipeline

In 2010, 12-year-old Alexa Gonzalez wrote “I love my friends Abby and Faith” and “Lex was here 2/1/10” on her desk in Spanish class with erasable marker. The school deemed these markings as vandalism, and as a result, Alexa was handcuffed, arrested, and detained at a New York City Police Department precinct in Queens. Several hours passed before she was released. While extreme, cases like Alexa’s are not rare; students all over the country face disciplinary procedures that deliver harsh predetermined punishments, rather than focusing on restorative practices.

Ultimately, this disproportionate way of looking at school discipline plays a major role in perpetuating the school to prison pipeline. The “school to prison pipeline” refers to a national trend in which school policies and practices are directly and indirectly pushing students out of school and on a pathway to prison. Often zero-tolerance policies in schools funnel students into this pipeline. Zero-tolerance policies require school officials to give students a specific, consistent, and harsh punishment, usually suspension or expulsion, when certain rules are broken. The punishment applies regardless of the circumstances, the reasons for the behavior (such as self-defense), or the student’s history of disciplinary problems.

To prevent this streamline of students, many of them minorities, from entering the juvenile justice system, schools need to reevaluate their zero-tolerance policies by adding discretion and alternative forms of punishments.

Zero-tolerance policies were written into school handbooks in the 1990s, created originally to be a deterrent for bringing weapons into schools. These policies stemmed from law enforcement’s adoption of the “broken windows” theory and the Gun-Free Schools Act. The “broken windows” theory, proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, claims that crime is a disorder that, if not eliminated or controlled early on, increases like likelihood of committing a more serious crime later in life. For instance, the police would stop and arrest people for panhandling, disorderly conduct, and public drinking in order to prevent and decrease the number of rapes, robberies, and murders. With this theory in mind, school districts and states began cracking down on minor violations to prevent serious crimes from occurring in the future. The Gun-Free Schools Act states that,

Each State receiving Federal funds under any title of this Act shall have in effect a State law requiring local educational agencies to expel from school for a period of not less than 1 year a student who is determined to have brought a firearm to a school, or to have possessed a firearm at a school, under the jurisdiction of local educational agencies in that State, except that such State law shall allow the chief administering officer of a local educational agency to modify such expulsion requirement for a student on a case-by-case basis if such modification is in writing.

Each state and school system vary in their approach and language surrounding zero-tolerance policies, but the common punishments of suspension and expulsion from school come from the following offenses: bringing any weapon to school, including seemingly innocent items like butter knives 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, such as cutting in a lunch line.

Many students under strict zero-tolerance policies are punished without a second thought. This type of disciplinary procedure has been proven in research to have an overall negative effect on students, and a disproportionately negative effect on minorities. In an American Psychological Association report, a task force gathered data related to certain assumptions that coincided with zero-tolerance policies. One of the assumptions, similar to the broken-window theory, was that only with swift, strict, and uniform zero-tolerance punishments would students be deterred from breaking the rules. Further, the assumption was that this would in turn improve the overall behavior of the student and decrease disciplinary infractions in the school. However, the task force’s research found that assumption to be false:

The notion of deterring future misbehavior is central to the philosophy of zero-tolerance, and the impact of any consequence on future behavior is the defining characteristic of effective punishment. Rather than reducing the likelihood of disruption, however, school suspension in general appears to predict higher future rates of misbehavior and suspension among those students who are suspended. In the long term, school suspension and expulsion are moderately associated with a higher likelihood of school dropout and failure to graduate on time.

Many studies have also shown that zero-tolerance policies disproportionately affect minority students and play a major role in the school to prison pipeline. Along with addressing the assumptions of zero-tolerance policies, the previously mentioned task force also researched how these policies impact students of color. School administrators thought that removing subjective influences from the disciplinary process and following a blind-justice approach would make it more fair to students. This was part of the appeal of zero-tolerance policies - that the only factor for consideration was whether or not the  rule was broken. However, the task force found that this can result in a disproportionate number of students of color being disciplined, reporting an overrepresentation in suspension and expulsion for African American students, and less consistently for Latino students. The task force presented a conclusion on why African American students are disciplined at higher rates than their classmates, stating:

The evidence shows that such disproportionality is not due entirely to economic disadvantage nor are there any data supporting the assumption that African American students exhibit higher rates of disruption or violence that would warrant higher rates of discipline. Rather, African American students may be disciplined more severely for less serious or more subjective reasons. Emerging professional opinion, qualitative research findings, and a substantive empirical literature from social psychology suggest that the disproportionate discipline of students of color may be due to lack of teacher preparation in classroom management, lack of training in culturally competent practices, or racial stereotypes.

Students of color, particularly African American students, received the opposite of the intended outcome of the “blind justice” that zero-tolerance policies advocated for and claimed to uphold. Further research has shown that these policies can put students at risk for dropping out of school and/or entering the juvenile justice system. Punishments like out-of-school suspensions can severely disrupt a student’s academic progress. The Center on Youth Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice found that “for similar students attending similar schools, a single suspension or expulsion doubles the risk that a student will repeat a grade. Being retained a grade, especially while in middle or high school, is one of the strongest predictors of dropping out.” In a national longitudinal study, it was reported that youth with a prior suspension were 68% more likely to dropout of school.

It is imperative that schools reconsider the way that they discipline students, and look to holistically develop them into positive, contributing members of society.

The results of adopting these policies have been overwhelmingly negative for students and school climates. To change this, school administrators should set their focuses on restorative practices rather than trying to deter students with harsh punishments. In adopting restorative practices, disciplinary procedures include conflict resolutions which allow all parties affected by the situation to share their side of the story. In the end, the group or the mediator creates a plan to fix the harm done.

Studies have shown that adopting this approach improved the overall culture of the school and reduced the number of infractions. Over the summer, I had the opportunity to work with a school that embraces these restorative practices, Maya Angelou Public Charter School. Maya Angelou PCS is an alternative school in Washington, D.C. that focuses on providing wraparound services, such as: integrated school-based mental health services; Student Development Specialists (SDS), who provide classroom-based support and intensive case management to students; residential counseling services; and requirements for all staff members to mentor a small number of students as they mature and navigate the challenges of high school. The school believes it is essential to provide their students with services like these because many of their students have experienced trauma or require a non-traditional learning environment. With this, Maya PCS has a legacy of actively recruiting students who have a history of struggling both academically and behaviorally.

During my time with this school, I was able to see first-hand their alternative approaches to discipline. In their Parent & Student Handbook, Maya PCS lays out a restorative model for discipline. They make a point to feature two forms of development - character development and community development. The handbook describes the first, character development, as focusing on “non-punitive responses to infractions with the Code of Conduct. Students will work to ‘right the wrong’ caused to the scholastic community through addressing the affected. Actions can include addressing peers, physical repair of damaged property and the planning of social justice activities.” The second form of development, community development, is another alternative disciplinary tactic. This form affords students who have violated the code of conduct an opportunity to assist in the development of the school community by serving in various capacities.

Along with these forms of developments, Maya PCS addresses issues on a tier scale, in which there are three tiers that a violation can be perceived under. Tier 1 behaviors are minor disruptions that result in classroom-level disciplinary responses; Tier 2 behaviors cause disruption to the academic environment, involve damage to school property, or may cause minor harm to self or others, resulting in school‐based and administrative disciplinary responses; and Tier 3 behaviors are behaviors that cause significant disruption or damage, and can result in out of school suspension. The school also makes a clear note that parent engagement and communication is critical throughout the student discipline process, believing that the parents play an important role in the restoration process for the child.  

During my time at Maya PCS, I was able to see this disciplinary system at work. One afternoon, a student who has a mental disability attempted to leave class because it was the last period of the day. The teacher informed the student that it was not time to leave, and the student became irritated and threatened to break a computer in the classroom. The teacher then called security and the clinical care counselor to calm the student down and go for a walk. On the walk, the student made a threat to the security officer. The security officer, knowing the student well, continued to take the student on a walk until the student calmed down, and then returned them to class. The next day, a meeting was held with the student, the student’s parent, the security officer, the teacher, the clinical care counselor, and the principal. Each person involved shared what had happened from their perspective. The student apologized and talked through what could have gone differently in the situation. Since the student had threatened school property and a school employee, the principal explained to the student that they were going to serve an on‐site suspension. If this student was in a zero-tolerance school, they most likely would have received a harsher punishment with little to no opportunity for reconciliation or reflection. Schools like Maya PCS exemplify a better way to respond to students with disciplinary infractions, emphasizing the importance and power of holistic reconciliation that affirms the dignity of the student.

It has been proven that schools with zero-tolerance policies play a role in the school to prison pipeline. It is imperative that schools reconsider the way that they discipline students, and look to holistically develop them into positive, contributing members of society, rather than simply seek to deter them from crime. If this becomes the school’s priority, then the student can be set on a better path and a more positive learning environment can be created within the school. This can be accomplished through the use of tools like interventions, administrative discretion, cultural competency training, and other disciplinary responses, to repair and reconcile harm done to individuals or groups within the school community. The initial intent behind zero-tolerance policies was to create a better learning environment for all students in the school - however, countless studies have proven that this policy has created the reverse effect. Now, it is time for school leaders to adopt a different, better approach that affirms and values all students at their core.

-Farnel Maxime is a recent graduate of Gordon College. He is currently working in Washington, DC as a Program Coordinator for Capital Partners for Education. He is also a Juvenile Justice Fellow for Shared Justice.