Zero Tolerance Policies in Schools Under Attack -- New Report Finds No Evidence It Works, Plenty Showing Ill Effects and Racial Bias 6/1/01

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One ugly legacy of the Reaganite drug war of the 1980s has found a home in the nation's schools. "Zero tolerance," a term first brought into the national consciousness courtesy of Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese, who used it to refer to his policy of seizing vehicles and properties no matter how tiny the amount of drugs found, has evolved from a term of propaganda for drug warriors into a fuzzy philosophy for educators. Loosely translated, it means that any violation of the rules, no matter how minuscule or what the circumstances, will be punished severely.

Zero tolerance didn't work for the drug war; the Customs program championed by Meese choked on its own absurdities, finally dying a quiet death after Customs agents attempted to seize a scientific vessel belonging to the Woodshole Oceanographic Research Institute (Cape Cod, MA) because a crewman had a joint in his cabin. Zero tolerance in the schools is generating the same kind of absurd outcomes while failing to increase school safety, according to a new study from the University of Indiana's Indiana Education Policy Center.

The report, "Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice," reviewed the use of zero tolerance in schools since its inception in the 1980s. It found that not only does zero tolerance not achieve its stated goals, but that its most common punishments, suspension and expulsion, lead to increased drop-out rates and other negative consequences and that African American students are "overexposed" to such punishments.

"Zero tolerance is a political response, not an educationally sound solution," said Indiana University Professor Russell Skiba, director of the Safe and Responsive Schools Project in the IU School of Education and author of the report. "It sounds impressive to say that we're taking a tough stand against misbehavior, but the data say it simply hasn't been effective in improving student behavior or ensuring school safety."

Tell it to Congress. The Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 mandates zero tolerance policies for weapons violations at schools. But Congress does not deserve all the blame. States such as California, Kentucky and New York began implementing zero tolerance policies for drugs, fighting and gang activity as early as 1989. By 1993, the trend had swept the nation, broadening as it went to include alcohol, truancy, insubordination, unauthorized use of pagers and laser pointers, and swearing.

As Berkeley researcher Joel Brown, head of the Center Research and Development, noted in his recent survey of drug education programs (, although zero tolerance is not a federal mandate when it comes to drug violations, under federal "no-use" guidelines, "students are to be suspended or expelled from school for use, possession or distribution of alcohol, tobacco or drugs." Brown found that such policies are in effect in nearly 90% of US schools, and their impact is staggering. In 1997, the only year for which national statistics are available, more than 177,000 students were suspended or expelled for drug, alcohol or tobacco violations. Eighty percent of those students, or about 136,000 kids, were suspended for more than five days or expelled. That ranked drug related reasons second only to physical fights as a reason for school discipline, Brown wrote. "Young people are removed from mainstream education for drugs nearly three times more often than they are removed for weapons, and ten times more often than the number of young people removed for carrying firearms," he noted.

"The extent to which those who are removed from school have a drug abuse problem versus the legal problem of being caught with drugs is not known," Brown noted wryly. He also reported that no demographic data on those students was available.

While the Indiana study did not explicitly look at racial disparities in zero tolerance drug punishments, it did find clear racial disparities in the administration of zero tolerance policies overall. In his survey of the literature, report author Skiba reported that "racial disproportionality in the use of school suspension has been a highly consistent finding." When Skiba controlled for socioeconomic status, he found that students from poor families were more likely to receive zero tolerance punishments, but that family wealth alone did not explain the difference between punishments for whites and blacks. Nor was there evidence that black students acted out more than white students, wrote Skiba.

There are signs of hope, according to the report. Zero tolerance policies, ridiculed for excesses such as suspending five-year-olds for kissing or junior high students for possessing organic cough drops, are beginning to lose favor in some districts, Skiba reported. For those districts pondering a change, the study has several commonsense recommendations:

  • Avoid one-size-fits-all punishments. Institute a graduated system of consequences where the punishment fits the offense.
  • Expand the array of options available to schools for dealing with student misbehavior.
  • Implement preventive measures that can improve school climate and reconnect alienated students.
"Strictures against cruel and unusual punishment are fundamental to our legal system," wrote Skiba. "It may well be that school punishments greatly out of proportion to the events arouse controversy by violating basic conceptions of fairness inherent in our system of law, even when upheld by the courts."

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Issue #188, 6/1/01 Editorial: Close Encounters | Zero Tolerance Policies in Schools Under Attack -- New Report Finds No Evidence It Works, Plenty Showing Ill Effects and Racial Bias | Czech Experiment With Repressive Drug Laws Under Fire, Reformers Aim Parliamentary Challenge at "Severa's Amendment" | New York Marijuana Reform Party Gears Up for City, State Races, Attacks NYC Police Tactics | French Ravers March Against Proposed Law, Street Fighting Breaks Out in Toulouse | Mexican Congressman Calls for Legalization, Latin America to Unite Against "US-Imposed Drug Policy" | Action Alerts: Waters Bill, Drug Czar Nomination, HEA, Medical Marijuana | The Reformer's Calendar
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