Texas Zero Tolerance
Texas Zero Tolerance

These are only a few examples of how Zero Tolerance policies can have a profound effect on students in our schools today.  This policy, that was originally created to deter extreme, and intentional acts of violence, such as school shootings, has ended up having the largest effect on students who did not have mal-intentions. The consequences of the zero tolerance policy have had an extremely negative effect on students, especially minority students, or students of low socio-economic status, and thus far, have not proven to have any effect on extreme acts of violence.

Definition of Zero Tolerance

"Zero tolerance" is the term that describes America's answer to student misbehavior and what people believe to be the escalation of violence in schools across America. Under zero tolerance, schools will automatically and often, severely, punish a student for infractions ranging from minor to serious without looking at the intent of the student or the context of the behavior. 
Zero tolerance began as a Congressional response to keeping guns off school campuses; however, gun cases are the least occurring of school discipline cases. This policy has become a one-size-fits-all solution to many student behaviors. It has redefined students as criminals, with unforeseen and often unfortunate consequences.

While zero tolerance policies were intended to target the serious risk of students bringing guns or drugs  to school, they have expanded to looking at other possible weapons or anything - like a Swiss Army knife - that might be used as a weapon. While the policy is theoretically directed at students who misbehave intentionally, it also applies to those who misbehave as a result of emotional problems or other disabilities, or who merely forget what is in their pocket after legitimate non-school activities. It treats first graders and twelfth graders exactly the same.

Public Schools

The social system I will be exploring in my paper is the public school system that is present in our country.  All children in America have the right to attend public schools that are supported by federal, state and local tax dollars.  More recent legislation has been passed to protect the rights of disabled students to ensure they too have their educational needs met and receive a “free, appropriate public education” (FAPE). Because all states have laws dealing with compulsory education, all youth in the United States must attend school. Schools are communities in and of themselves and are responsible for not only the education of our children, but for keeping them safe.  But in today’s society, schools are responsible for much more than that.  Schools have become social workers, healthcare providers and some say that schools are more instrumental in raising children than parents in some cases.  More and more schools are now including social workers as an integral part of their school staff.

Zero Tolerance and Social Work

Zero Tolerance is an important topic for social workers for a number of reasons.  First, social workers often work with the students who have the fewest resources and, in many cases, are being raised in poverty.  Students raised in these families often do not have a clear understanding of the middle class norms under which schools operate, which makes them prone to behaviors that get them into trouble.  One need only look at the disproportionate representation of students with minority and low socio-economic backgrounds in Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs to understand that zero tolerance policies have a greater effect on these students.   Also, students who are removed from school due to disciplinary infractions often lose the only positive relationships and other support systems present in their lives.  Another reason these policies are important to social workers is that data shows that students who are removed from school for disciplinary reasons are 30% more likely to drop-out and more than 80% of Texas prison inmates are school drop-outs.  Many of these inmates have families and children who are served by social service organizations. This creates a cycle of families continuing for generations involved with social service systems due to poverty and child neglect or abuse, juvenile delinquency, the juvenile justice system, and finally the criminal justice system.


I utilized several articles dealing with Zero Tolerance to get data for my paper.  Most were from legal or educational journals such as: Journal of Law and Education, Exceptional Children, High School Journal and a paper presented to the American Sociology Association.  Most of the literature in concerning zero tolerance is found in educational publications, but applies equally to social workers in the school setting. A theme that I found throughout the literature was that zero tolerance policies in schools have a disproportionate negative effect on minorities as well as students from low socio-economic backgrounds. The literature also showed a link between students negatively affected by zero tolerance policies and the criminal justice system. They show that zero tolerance policies are not doing what it was set in place to do, but instead, have had an immensely negative effect on students already labeled “at risk”.


The purpose of my paper is to explore the effect of zero tolerance policies on the social welfare of students in public schools, specifically in terms of the prevalence of minority students removed due to these policies and the link between these removals and involvement in the criminal justice system.

The problem

Zero tolerance policies have been adopted, either formally or informally, in many school districts in Texas and across the nation, despite the fact that no credible evidence exists to show that these policies reduce crime or misbehavior in schools. (Skiba, 2000)  Countless students are suspended, expelled, and many arrested for incidents that were considered horseplay or innocent childhood pranks a generation ago. Schools now utilize the legal system to deal with offenses as minor as taking a pencil off a teacher’s desk, in effect criminalizing childhood misbehavior. In doing this they lose the opportunity to teach students valuable lessons about the ethics of right and wrong, but how to be a good citizen in today’s society. In the past, many of these lessons were learned at home or in religious activities, but in many families today, they are not taught at all.

Another problem with zero tolerance policies is that they tend to target both minorities and students from low socio-economic backgrounds.   Zero tolerance policies were instrumental in the development of Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs, (DAEP) as a way to remove students from regular campuses when they have committed a serious offense and are deemed too dangerous to remain.  Statistics from the Texas Education Agency for 2008/09 show that over 110,000 students were placed at DAEPs, 86,156 of these placements were not for dangerous offenses but were at the discretion of the district while 32,953 were mandatory placements due to state or federal law. Of the 86,156 discretionary placements into DAEP, 24,900 or 28% were African American students. According to TEA records of ethnic distribution in Texas Public schools, only 14.3% of students are African American, demonstrating the disproportionate treatment of African American students by public schools in Texas in disciplinary matters.  These statistics ring true for school districts across the nation. (Keleher, 2000)  Although the Texas Education Agency does not have available the data for these removals by social-economic status, nationwide, studies have documented over-representation of low-income students receiving disciplinary removals such as suspensions and expulsions.  (Skiba, 2000)  The implications of these removals pose several problems for school social workers.  Often social workers are already serving these students and their families to help link them to a number of resources to ensure that students have their basic needs met so that they are able to participate fully in the educational process.  The removal of these students from their home campus often severs not only the relationship developed between the student and the social worker, but also may impact the families access to these services.  Many alternative schools do not have the luxury of a staff social work professional to help ensure these students do not fall through the cracks.  When students are expelled, it is even more difficult to ensure that these students and their families have the resources to deal with a child who is now at home during the day.  Lack of supervision often leads to these students committing crimes and entering the juvenile justice system.

Effectiveness of Zero Tolerance Policies

After four years of implementation, the National Center for Education Statistics found that schools employing zero-tolerance policies are still less safe than those without such policies. (Skiba, 2000)  Students are removed regardless of the severity of the offense and their intent or lack of intent. Many students recommended for expulsion from schools do not represent danger to other students or staff and are a heterogeneous group, “Studies of school suspension have typically found that 30 to 50 percent of those suspended will be suspended again.”  (Morrison, et al, 1997).  Zero Tolerance policies cause schools to turn to law enforcement and the juvenile justice system to step in to handle even minor infractions of rules.  But multiple studies have shown that harsher punishment does not prevent future misbehavior, and in fact may produce an increase in recidivism.  Complicating the problem, not only are students who have been removed more likely to be removed again, but they are 30% more likely to drop out of school.  Students who drop out of school are much more likely to be unemployed and to enter the juvenile or adult justice system, taxing the resources of not only the legal system, but social service agencies as well.  This phenomenon, coined the school to prison pipeline, refers to the statistically likely outcome that many students who are removed under zero tolerance policies will become involved with the criminal justice system. These are only a few of the unintended consequences of zero tolerance policies in schools.

Psychological and Social-Emotional Needs of Students

Students have many needs that must be met in order for them to participate fully in the educational process. Students that are not achieving academically often do not have their basic needs met. These students are often termed “At Risk” by the educational community due to their lack of academic success and the need for educational and social supports to help them to achieve success in school. There are a number of factors used to determine whether a student fits the “At Risk” profile.  Five social factors are often associated with at risk youth: poverty, race and ethnicity, family composition, mother’s educational background and language background. All of these identifiers for at risk are also good descriptors of students affected most negatively by zero tolerance policies.

“According to many leading psychologists, rigid and inflexible discipline policies, such as zero tolerance, directly conflict with two major developmental needs of school-aged youths:

1) the development of strong and trusting relationships with key adults in their lives, particularly those in their school; and
2) the formation of positive attitudes toward fairness and justice.

- (Civil Rights Project, 2000)

For children who are already considered “at-risk” for school failure, removal from the classroom for disciplinary infractions often has the effect of pushing them out of school completely.

There is also the effect of generational poverty, further complicating the issue. Noted for her work in the area of poverty, Dr. Ruby Payne asserts that students from families with generational poverty do not have a clear understanding of the middle class norms and values needed to be successful in the educational system provided by our schools.  Often, explicit instruction in behavioral and communication skills is necessary to help these students become successful learners.  Once removed from school, they are not afforded this instruction, which is essential to their success not only in school, but in gaining employment and becoming successful citizens in our communities.  The introduction of social workers to our schools is in realization that we can serve these individuals while they are students and hopefully break them out of the cycle, or allow the progression to continue and serve them later within our social service and criminal justice agencies.


According to the literature, Zero Tolerance policies in schools do not improve the safety of schools or the students attending those schools.  They have been shown to be discriminatory and often have the effect of pushing out the very students who need extra support in order to be successful members of society. Social workers have a responsibility with this, both in the micro and macro levels. It is clear that there are many disparities in this policy and changes need to be made for students sake, especially those students labeled “at risk”. I feel that there should be a clear line between school systems and the criminal justice system. Students should be able to go to school and have a support system; the school should be an environment that promotes trust and positive behavior. With zero tolerance policies in place, it seems that the line between schools and the criminal justice system has been erased and a door between the two has been opened, increasing the risk that students negatively affected by this policy, especially those that previously had other risk factors, will also face criminal issues. I don’t believe that criminalizing students is the answer to the ongoing problem of school violence.


Browne, J. (n.d.). Derailed! The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track. Washington DC: Advancement Project.
Brownstein, R. (2009). Pushed out. Teaching Tolerance, 36, 58-61.
Christle, C., Jolivette, K., & Nelson, M. (2005). Breaking the School to Prison Pipeline: Identifying School  Risk and Protective Factors for Youth Delinquency. Exceptionality,  13(2), 69-88.                          
Dunbar, C., & Villarruel, F. (2004). What a Difference the Community Makes: Zero Tolerance Policy Interpretation and Implementation. Equity and Excellence in Education,, 37(4), 351-359.
Fries, K., & Demitchell, T. (2007). Zero tolerance and the paradox of fairness: Viewpoints from the classroom. Journal of Law and Education.
Keleher, T. (2000). Racial Disparities Related to School Zero Tolerance Policies: Testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (ED454324). Reports-Descriptive.
Morrison, G., & D'Incau, . (1997). Web of zero tolerance: Characteristics of students who are recommended for expulsion from school. Education and Treatment of Children, 20(3), 316-335.
Reyes, A. H. (2001). Alternative education: The criminalization of student behavior. Fordham University School of Law Urban Law Journal, 29(2), 539-559.
Reyes, A. H. (2006). Criminalization of student discipline programs and adolescent behavior. St. John’s School of Law Journal of Legal Commentary, 29.
Skiba, R. J. (2002). Zero tolerance, zero evidence: An analysis of school disciplinary practice. Policy Research Report.
Tuzollo, E., & Hewitt, D. (2007). Rebuilding Inequity: The Re-Emergence of the School-to-Prison Pipeline in New Orleans. High School Journal, 90(2), 59-68.
Wald, J., & Losen, D. (2003). Defining and redirecting a school-to-prison pipeline. New Directions in Youth Development,, 99, 9-15.
(2001). Zero tolerance": A Controversial Case in Decatur. The Scout Report for Social Sciences, 3(5).
(2008). Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? American Psychologist.

© 2010 Amanda Toohey

Zero Tolerance in Public Schools
by Amanda Toohey
Student's Corner