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Role of Zero Tolerance Policies in School-to-Prison Pipeline

Does zero tolerance help or harm students of color?

Gabrielle Palmer, MA
Gabrielle Palmer, MA/CAGS, School Psychology Program, William James College
Source: Gabrielle Palmer, MA

Authored by Gabrielle Palmer, MA, and edited by Natalie Cort, PhD

The School-to-Prison Pipeline (SPP) refers to a system of institutional forces that disproportionately target some groups of students for removal from school through detention, suspension or expulsion. These forces push students out of the classroom and ultimately funnel them into the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems, in part facilitated by the increased presence of student resource officers (Daly et al., 2016). While many factors contribute to the SPP, one of the leading factors is the use of “zero-tolerance” policies in schools that result in harsh punishment or referral to juvenile justice programs (Advancement Project, 2010).

Zero-tolerance policies are based on predetermined punishments or consequences to a behavior regardless of the severity of the offense (Daly et al., 2016). Even though the initial intent of zero-tolerance policies were aimed at preventing violence and other problematic behaviors, in many cases zero-tolerance policies have been inappropriately implemented as students are removed from school for relatively inconsequential infractions. The misuse and racially biased application of these policies have led to a dramatic rise in rates of student discipline, including suspension or expulsion from school, with detrimental outcomes for vulnerable youth, particularly those from racial/ethnic minority backgrounds (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008; Advancement Project, 2010).

Twenty years of zero-tolerance policies have resulted in damaging effects on many different groups of students; racial/ethnic minority children and children with disabilities are disproportionately represented (Advancement Project, 2010). According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (2014), Black students are nearly three times more likely to be suspended and 3.5 times more likely to be expelled than their White peers. In addition, students with disabilities are four times more likely to be suspended than their non-disabled peers. Yet, zero-tolerance policies and practices are still in place and continue to perpetuate a broken system that pushes our nation's most historically marginalized children out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008).

Research has also consistently shown a relationship between zero-tolerance policies and educational outcomes, especially among students of color (i.e., Blacks and Latinos) and students with disabilities (Advancement Project, 2010). The impact of these disparities can be devastating to children. According to the Advancement Project (2010), just one out-of-school suspension in ninth grade doubles a student’s risk of dropping out before graduation. Additionally, out-of-school suspensions/expulsions are strong predictors of future behavior issues, academic under-performance, dropping out, or failure to graduate high school on time, as well as an increased risk of antisocial and delinquent behavior (Daly et al., 2016). It has been shown that 24 percent of youth in custody were not enrolled in school when they entered custody, and 57 percent had been suspended in the past year (Kennedy, 2016).

While the goal of zero-tolerance policies was to make the nation’s schools safer, numerous studies have shown the opposite effect (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008). Schools with higher rates of school suspension and expulsion appear to have less satisfactory ratings of school climate, to have less satisfactory school governance structures, and to spend a disproportionate amount of time on disciplinary matters (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008). Given the notable negative outcomes, it is clear that reexaminations of and alterations to zero-tolerance policies in our educational system are warranted.

To reduce the growth of the pipeline, the following suggestions and changes in the education system may be useful options to be reviewed and considered:

CARE Program (Center for Academic Re-entry and Empowerment): A comprehensive truancy-intervention program in Bayview Hunter’s Point, San Francisco provides students with a safe and supportive place to re-engage with the school system and re-build relationships with educators. Students are supported in goal setting and achievement efforts with a focus on job-specific and academic skills. Students’ creativity, optimism, competence, and independence are promoted.

Revision of Student Codes of Conduct: Student codes of conduct may be redesigned to focus on effective and preventative rehabilitative interventions to reduce suspensions and expulsions. An effective code of conduct should also include clear expectations of appropriate behavior for the entire school community, consistent discipline measures, and appropriate ways to respond to varying problematic in-school behaviors.

Training of Student Resource Officers (SROs): Only 12 states in the U.S. require SROs to receive official training! Those that do require training receive about 40 hours of instructional time, including three days of training in counseling and education. SROs should be educated about the structure of the adolescent brain and its capacity to better understand behavior. Additionally, SROs should receive training to effectively respond to students with disabilities and behavioral challenges.

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Advancement Project (2010). Test, punish, and push out: How “zero tolerance” and high stakes testing policies funnel youth into the school-to-prison pipeline. Washington, DC.

American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendation. American Psychologist, 63, 852-862.

Daly, B., Hildenbrand, A., Haney-Caron, E., Goldstein, N., Galloway, M., & DeMatteo, D. (2016). Disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline: Strategies to reduce the risk of school-based zero tolerance policies resulting in juvenile justice involvement. In K. Heilburn (Ed), APA Handbook Of Psychology And Juvenile Justice., 257-275.

Elias, M. (2013). The School-to-Prison Pipeline. Teaching Tolerance, (43), 39-40. Retrieved from

National Center for Education Statistics (2009). Contexts of Elementary and Secondary Education.

U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. (2014, March). Civil Rights Data Collection Data Snapshot: School Discipline (Issue Brief No. 1). Retrieved from

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