Zero Tolerance

Zero tolerance refers to school discipline policies and practices that mandate predetermined consequences, typically severe, punitive and exclusionary (e.g., out of school suspension and expulsion), in response to specific types of student misbehavior—regardless of the context or rationale for the behavior. The term originated during the Reagan era during which the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was signed into law as a response to the War on Drugs. The law imposed new mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders changing a rehabilitative system into a punitive system. Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, requiring states to expel students who bring firearms to school. Although originally intended as a response to serious offenses (e.g., selling drugs or engaging in gang-related fights on school grounds) to ensure safe and healthy schools, in recent years zero tolerance policies have been applied broadly to include minor offenses (e.g., talking back to school personnel, bringing over the counter or prescription drugs on school grounds without a doctor’s note, and coming to school out of uniform) (NEA, 2008).  Like the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, school zero tolerance policies typically do not specify rehabilitative or supportive services to help students change their behavior in positive ways. Research has demonstrated that zero tolerance policies can lead to harmful effects of individuals, lead to higher rates of exclusionary disciplinary action and are not associated with improved school safety and academics (APA, 2008).   

  • General Info
  • Strategies & Practices
  • Tools
  • On The Ground
  • Other
General Info: 

Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations

(2008) American Psychological Association (APA) Zero Tolerance Task Force

This report highlights research identifying that zero-tolerance policies may negatively affect the relationships between education and juvenile justice as well as hinder adolescent development. The report concludes that data raises questions about the effectiveness of zero tolerance policies. 

Failed Policies, Broken Futures: The True Cost of Zero Tolerance in Chicago

(2011) Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) 

This report draws from research and student’s own stories, to demonstrate that zero tolerance does not lead to safer schools or improved academic outcomes and damages student-teacher relations. Zero tolerance policies have major financial costs to taxpayers.

The Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice

(2000) Indiana Education Policy Center

This paper explores the history, philosophy, and effectiveness of zero tolerance policies in schools. Few studies report that zero tolerance policies improve student behavior or school safety and instead finds that research on suspension and expulsion—essential parts of zero tolerance policies—raises serious concerns about the consistency, fairness, and effectiveness of such discipline.

The Time Is Right to End 'Zero Tolerance' in Schools

(2011) Education Week

This article shares the high national rates of suspension and expulsion, especially for students of color. It cites National Center on Education Statistics (NCES) data that show the great majority of suspensions and expulsions were for non-criminal offenses such as coming late to class, talking back to a teacher, or violating dress codes. It also mentions an essential movement against unproven, expensive, harmful zero tolerance policies to end of the school-to-prison pipeline.


(2012) Judith Browne Dianis of Advancement Project testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the School-to-Prison Pipeline

This is a video of Judith Browne Dianis, Co Director of the Advancement Project who testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the School-to-Prison Pipeline. 

Safe, Drug Free and Effective Schools for ALL students: What Works!

(1998) Department of Education

This report presents findings of a project that identified and examined three communities where schools have successfully reduced discipline problems and improved learning and behavior of all students, including those with disabilities. 

Zero Tolerance, High-Stakes Testing, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

(2010) Advancement Project and FairTest

This presentation explains the similar origins and mutual reinforcement between (the pressures of) high-stakes testing and (the over-reliance on) zero tolerance policies through which schools suspend or expel students who are less engaged, disruptive, and/or expected to score below proficiency levels on academic assessments. The presentation also provides potential solutions (e.g., people who push for positive school discipline reform should push for high-stakes testing reform, and vice versa).

Test, Punish, and Push Out: How Zero Tolerance and High-Stakes Testing Funnel Youth into the School-to-Prison Pipeline

(2010) Advancement Project

This report aims to help stakeholders move beyond zero tolerance policies and high-stakes testing, explaining their mutual reinforcement contributes to hostile school environments and pushes students into the school-to-prison pipeline. It cites evidence that zero tolerance policies have not improved school safety or student behavior and provides examples in which alternative prevention and intervention strategies have been successful.

Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track 

(2005) Advancement Project, Padres and Jóvenes Unidos, Southwest Youth Collaborative, and Children & Family Justice Center of Northwestern University School of Law

This report aims to inspire people to discuss the negative impact of zero tolerance policies and bring about alternative methods that have decreased school violence and improved learning environments. It reviews the disparate impact on students of color; the expanding role of law enforcement in schools; provides examples of the school-to-prison pipeline in Denver, Chicago, and Palm Beach; and presents initial solutions.

Multiple Responses, Promising Results: Evidence-Based Nonpunitive Alternatives To Zero Tolerance

(2011) Child Trends

This brief reviews existing research on the implementation and effects of zero tolerance in the school setting; and it highlights rigorously evaluated, nonpunitive alternatives to zero tolerance that have shown greater promise in improving school safety and student outcomes.

Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court

(2013) New York City School-Justice Partnership Task Force

This report highlights research findings and recommendations made by the New York City School-Justice Partnership Task Force. The report describes relevant data about school-justice indicators in New York City, emerging trends in policy and practice around the country, and provides recommendations and strategies for implementation.

Strategies & Practices: 

Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools

(1998) U.S. Department of Education

This guide presents a summary of the research on violence prevention and intervention and crisis response in schools. The guide tells school communities: (1) what to look for--the early warning signs that relate to violence and other troubling student behavior; and (2) what to do--the action steps that school communities can take to prevent violence and other troubling behaviors, to intervene and get help for troubled children, and to respond to school violence when it occurs.

A Study of Zero Tolerance Policies in Schools: A Multi-Integrated Systems Approach to Improve Outcomes for Adolescents

(2011) Steven C. Teske, M.D., Ph.D., Judge

This article presents a case study on a juvenile court’s innovative, multi-integrated systems approach in which school systems can access interventions immediately to address underlying causes of students’ disruptive behavior. It also discusses evidence on the adverse trends of zero tolerance policies and concludes that a multi-integrated systems approach—understanding the reasons for a student’s disruptive behavior—can improve student educational and behavioral outcomes.

Safeguarding our Children: An Action Guide

(2000) U.S. Department of Education

Produced for the Departments of Education and Justice, and vetted by the White House and 26 National Associations, this Action Guide provides practical steps schools can take to design and implement school safety plans to reduce violence in our schools and help children get access to services they need. This guide stresses the importance of a three-stage, comprehensive model that includes prevention, early intervention and intensive services to address school safety issues.  

Safe Schools, Staff Development, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

(2012) Simon Gonsoulin, Mark Zablocki, and Peter E. Leone

This report reviews the importance of effective professional development of school personnel to break the school-to-prison pipeline and promote positive youth development. It presents a three-tiered model—1) Universal Staff Development for school personnel and community partners, 2) Targeted Staff Development for anyone, including School Resource Officers (SROs), who has regular contact with youth, and 3) Intensive Staff Development for school personnel and SROs. It also reviews a related example of The Denver Public School System.



How Can We Improve School Discipline?

(2010) Educational Researcher

This article describes three approaches to improving school discipline practices and student behavior: ecological approaches to classroom management; school-wide positive behavioral supports; and social emotional learning. The article examines the supporting research and suggests ways to combine approaches. 

School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports

National TA Center on PBIS

The National TA Center on PBIS website provides a large variety of resources on strategies and practices around the implementation and evaluation of PBIS as well as family and community engagement with the PBIS process. The School, Family, and Training sections of the site link to tools, videos, and training sources that can be used for various levels and phases of implementation. The site includes resources for getting started; templates and blueprints for implementation, evaluation, and training/professional development; training resources for teams, staff, parents, and students; links to partner sites and organizations, and more. 

Multiple Responses, Promising Results: Evidence-Based Nonpunitive Alternatives To Zero Tolerance

(2011) Child Trends

This brief reviews literature on the implementation and effects of zero tolerance policies in schools and presents evaluated, alternative policies that have improved student outcomes and school safety.

Preventing School Violence: A Practice Guide to Comprehensive Planning

Safe and Responsive Schools Project at the Indiana Education Policy Center

This guide provides an overview of school violence prevention and explains alternatives to zero tolerance that are effective and provides guidance on how to implement alternative policies. 

 'Zero' Alternatives

Teaching Tolerance

This webpage lists suggestions for administrators and teachers who are interested in implementing alternatives to zero tolerance policies.


On the Ground: 

Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track 

(2005) Advancement Project, Padres and Jóvenes Unidos, Southwest Youth Collaborative, and Children & Family Justice Center of Northwestern University School of Law

This report profiles three school districts--Denver, Chicago and Palm Beach County--where zero tolerance policies and practices are in place but where community members are beginning to realize and address its adverse impact. 

Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools

(2013) American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania

This report focuses on two forms of exclusion from school that many Pennsylvania public school districts rely upon heavily: out-of-school suspensions (OSS) and removal from school by police, a category that includes arrests and summary offenses.In this first-time analysis of statewide school discipline data for Pennsylvania, we found that Black and Latino students and students with disabilities have been disproportionately removed from school.