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About >> FAQs

Q&A on Discipline and Policing

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What is zero tolerance?

Originally, “zero tolerance” described a school policy that “assigns explicit, predetermined punishments to specific violations of school rules, regardless of the situation or context of the behavior.” Proponents of zero tolerance argued that serious offenses should be automatically met with firm discipline. Although school districts have largely moved away from referring to their discipline policies as “zero tolerance,” many of the practices ushered in by the era of “zero tolerance” remain in force. The lasting impact of zero tolerance has been that school policies continue to enable large numbers of students to be removed from school under a broad range of circumstances – not confined to the most dangerous situations. 


The US Education Department defines zero tolerance policy as any policy that, “results in mandatory expulsion of any student who commits one or more specified offenses (e.g., offenses involving guns, or other weapons, or violence, or similar factors, or combinations of these factors).” Under this definition, a policy would be considered “zero tolerance” even if a superintendent could modify the expulsion on a case-by-case basis. However, most school districts have expanded the list of infractions that could result in removal of a child from school.


The Federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 mandated that each state adopt a law requiring local educational agencies to expel any student who possesses a firearm on school grounds, for at least one year, and refer such a student to the criminal justice or juvenile delinquency system. In addition, the Justice Department’s 1998 guide to safe schools suggests that school districts make the process of identifying “potentially dangerous” students easier for teachers and other school staff. 


As zero tolerance policies were written into state law and school policy, mandated punishments  were not confined to the most serious situations. Vague offenses – such as “ongoing open defiance,” “habitually disruptive behavior,” and “disturbing schools” – become grounds for suspension, expulsion, or arrest, while terms such as “weapon” have been broadened beyond their federal definition – “firearm.”


As a result, punishment came to be applied to a broad range of student behaviors that were seen to be disorderly or disruptive, even as overall levels of school and youth violence declined. With increases to maximum penalties for certain infractions and new policies mandating police be notified in specific instances, what may have started as a concern over keeping dangerous weapons out of schools has expanded to include a variety of offenses that have pushed large numbers of students out of school from pre-K to 12th grade.

Which students are most likely to be disciplined by being removed from school?


School disciplinary policies have never been applied equally to all student populations, even under zero tolerance policies. Nationwide, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ students are removed from classrooms at higher rates than other students. The highest rates of out-of-school-suspension and arrests are among Black boys with disabilities. 

Data and research indicate that higher rates of discipline for Black students stem from the discretion used by school officials in incidents involving punishment, undermining the notion of “zero tolerance.” The largest discipline study ever conducted – which tracked the educational arrests of nearly one million public school students in Texas – found that Black students were more likely to be disciplined than any other student, despite being less likely to commit offenses that required school removal under state zero tolerance policies.


Is school discipline that removes children from school a problem for only Black students?

No. Discipline practices that favor removal from school affect a broad range of students. Students with disabilities are much more likely to be punished than their non-disabled peers, with particularly high rates among students of color with disabilities – highest among Black boys. In most states, Latinx and Indigenous students are removed from school at higher rates than their white counterparts.


There is also a racial-gender dimension to school discipline. Nationally, Black female students are punished at higher rates than women of other races or ethnicities, and most men.


LGBTQ+ youth, especially young women, are punished by school and criminal justice systems at greater rates than their involvement in negative behaviors. More research is needed to understand how discipline disparities affect LGBTQ+ students.


What accounts for disparities in discipline rates for students from racial groups?

Research indicates that there is no evidence that disparities in discipline rates for Black students are due to higher rates of misbehavior. Yet, Black students are most likely to face disciplinary punishment in public schools. 


Several factors have been identified by experts to help explain these discrepancies:

  • First, school rules are selectively enforced to the detriment of some groups of students. Black students are more likely to be disciplined — and to be disciplined more severely — than other students who exhibit the same behaviors. 

  • Recent research indicates that differences in the treatment and support of Black students once they enter school are likely the single biggest contributors to racial disparities in punishment, more than non-school factors (such as a student’s background)

  • Black students tend to be referred to the principal’s office more often for violations that are measured subjectively, such as “disruption” or “defiance,” while white students are more likely to be referred for offenses that can be determined by objective observation, such as smoking. 

  • The problem is further exacerbated by schools that establish rules which, intentionally or not, negatively impact a certain race or ethnic group of students. A good example would be certain clothing rules. Federal officials have stated that, in some instances, these rules are discriminatory (and in violation of the law), especially when they serve no legitimate educational objectives or those objectives might be met by policies that don’t single out specific racial groups.

Does removing students from school cause harm?

Yes. The groundbreaking school discipline study mentioned above, which tracked over one million Texas public school students, found that suspension or expulsion substantially increased the likelihood of students’ involvement in the juvenile justice system the next year. Exclusionary discipline places young people at greater risk for disengagement from school, dropping out, and chronic underemployment. The results are higher rates of involvement with the criminal justice system, as well as lost days of classroom instruction due to out-of-school-suspensions. 

Removal creates a negative relationship between students and their schools. Those who were suspended or expelled were more likely to be held back a grade or drop out of school than other students. Academic research also indicates that when schools stopped suspending students for disorderly behaviors students made significant gains in test scores – driven by the positive changes to their school climate.


If we reduce out-of-school suspensions, will that make schools more disorderly?

No. In most schools, there does not appear to be a relationship between the frequency of students’ removal from school and how peaceful a school is. Yet, suspension, expulsion, and police intervention are being used to remove large numbers of students from school for a broad range of alleged infractions. 


Due process, equal treatment, and basic fairness are often sacrificed in the rush to remove students from schools. Creating positive school environments requires shifting the emphasis of discipline policies away from zero tolerance to practices that increase fairness, improve communication, and establish problem-solving mechanisms. This work demands effort and buy-in from the community as a whole, as well as efforts by school officials to rely less on the removal of students from school by adopting alternatives that have been proven to work. 

Some promising approaches include positive behavior intervention and support, restorative practices, social and emotional learning, and improved classroom management. Adoption of these approaches has led to reduction in the use of exclusionary discipline, a reduction in the amount of instructional time lost to discipline, and increased student engagement with school.


Why is it important to grant students due process in discipline matters?

Under due process — a central principle in the Constitution — a fair and lawful procedure must be followed before an individual right can be taken away. In school discipline, this would mean that a student who is accused of committing an infraction is informed about the alleged wrongdoing, is shown whatever information an official may be acting on, and is given the chance to tell his or her side of the story and present other evidence or witnesses.


Using due process helps school officials get to the bottom of incidents and conflicts. It helps protect students if the wrong person is accused, the incident report does not reflect what actually happened, a false allegation is made, or the incident results from other problems in the school environment that need attention. 

Unfortunately, many students are not granted due process in disciplinary situations either because the law and or school policy doesn't require it or the school doesn't follow the policy. Also, parents and their children don't know their rights, and they find the system difficult to navigate without hiring a lawyer. In some districts, lawyers are not allowed to fully participate in disciplinary meetings.


Due process has an added benefit: When students feel that they are being treated fairly, they are more likely to accept school policies and to respect the people who administer them, even if they disagree with those policies. And they may be more likely to share tips with these adults about safety concerns.


Treating children fairly fosters a trusting relationship between students and adults at their school, with the added benefit of increasing school safety.


What can districts do to reduce racial disparities in discipline?

The first step is to assess whether there is a problem. School officials should regularly review discipline data to determine whether discipline rates show persistent disparities. The next step is to examine the leading reasons for discipline for different groups of students. Do certain groups of students tend to be disciplined more frequently for certain offenses? Discussion within the school community can be revealing. Students, parents, and guardians can provide clues about the selective enforcement of school rules and other underlying problems contributing to discipline disparities. Schools should change codes of student conduct that use broad and subjective categories of offenses. 


Finally, it is important that school discipline systems be reviewed and reformed as a whole, not piecemeal. Some districts have reduced suspensions only to see more students get arrested for the same violations. This is not a desirable outcome. We recommend reserving the most serious consequences (school removal and police assistance) for the most dangerous offenses.


Do charter schools have the same discipline policies as traditional public schools?

No. Charter schools receive public funding, but are run independently. Charters have their own student codes of conduct, which are typically very different from those of regular public schools and tend to be more restrictive. Several concerns have been raised about the practices of some charters: punishing students more frequently than regular public schools do for minor nonviolent infractions; failing to grant due process in disciplinary matters; engaging in informal practices that exclude students from school; and encouraging families to disenroll their students (transferring them back into the traditional public system) when there is a discipline infraction. However, federal anti-discrimination laws apply to students who attend charter schools, as well as other public schools.


Is there a harm caused by adding police officers to work in schools?

Yes. Having police stationed in schools increases the possibility of students becoming involved with the justice system in some way, such as through arrest or citation. The growing trend of having police stationed in schools full-time is concerning because when police are embedded in school, they tend to get involved in routine student conflicts and disciplinary matters that are not particularly dangerous or violent. This may happen by choice or at the request of educators. In some instances, what may be a minor infraction (such as a violation of the cell-phone policy) escalates when the intervening adult is a law enforcement officer. 


Researchers concluded that increasing the number of school resource officers was associated with the growth in exclusionary discipline. A government-funded study concluded that student arrest rates are higher in schools with police officers, especially for minor infractions that do not involve serious physical injury, because police are involved in everyday disciplinary issues. 


The boundaries between police and educators have become less clear — who decides what when interacting with students — and the degree of collaboration between police and educators has increased in the past two decades. Generally speaking, school officials have more authority over day-to-day in-school matters, such as searches of student belongings and the questioning of students, than outside law enforcement. Students may become confused about when in-school police are acting as school officials or as law enforcement, and what rights students have in those interactions. Moreover, there has been an increase in incidents in which students are assaulted by school police.


Recently, student arrests and law enforcement contact have also grown. Placing police in schools also increases the likelihood of a youth having a negative or traumatic experience with a police officer during their adolescent years. As a result of inequitable practices and a history of racially discriminatory policing in the U.S., students of color, particularly Black students, report feeling unsafe when police are present in schools when compared to their white peers.

Finally, school districts may be liable under federal civil rights law for the discriminatory actions of security staff and police.


Does adding police prevent school shootings?

No. Proponents of school hardening argue that adding school police prevents mass school shootings. School shootings still occur when school police are present, as was the case in Columbine, Santa Fe (TX), Parkland, and Uvalde. Recent studies which have examined school shootings over the past several decades found that the presence of police does not reduce their likelihood or severity. One such study of school shootings between 1980 and 2019 found that the presence of school police did not deter shooters and increased the number of casualties. In fact, the data indicates that having an armed officer on the scene was the number one factor contributing to increased casualties after a perpetrator used an assault rifle or submachine gun.


Does adding police reduce school crime?

No. A recent study funded by the US Department of Justice found that expanding the funding of school police positions through grant programs did not lead to a reduction in school crime. Another study found that the presence of school police does not have an effect on rates of bullying in schools.


What promising school policing reforms are being adopted?

Communities around the country are beginning to reconsider how police are used in schools. Previously, efforts around school policing centered around reforms to policing (e.g. MOUs, police training, etc.). However, these reforms were ineffective at reducing unnecessary student arrests, keeping police out of ordinary school discipline, and eliminating other harms that are associated with enhanced police involvement in schools. 

Today, the most promising reforms aim to: 1) reduce police presence in schools and increase support for students; and 2) implement harm reduction measures. Examples of such reforms include: reducing police and increasing student support and reducing harmful interventions. More information about other reforms and sample policies can be found here.


Does the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or social media monitoring technology make schools safer?

Research has shown that installing metal detectors, security cameras, or social media technology may be ineffective, harm school climate, and undermine student trust.

For an intervention that has been so widely recommended, at such a high price, studies of the effectiveness of security technology are extremely limited. What evidence there is suggests that metal detectors, alarm systems, and security cameras have been largely ineffective in securing a school community from shootings. Rather, these technologies are often used to catch students who commit minor infractions, such as vandalism. Further, they harm school climate by undermining students’ trust of school staff, making students more reluctant to step forward if they or a peer are experiencing mental wellness issues.


Are threat assessment programs effective?

Specific threats made against school communities should be evaluated by school staff and, in extreme circumstances, reported to law enforcement. Threat assessment is supposed to be used to determine whether actual threats made by students are likely to be carried out. In actual practice, however, this method is often applied more broadly, in situations in which a young person has not made an explicit threat against the school community or has not indicated an intent or propensity to carry out an act of extreme violence.


There is growing evidence that threat assessment may be used to target, stigmatize, and harm students with disabilities, Black students, and others based on stereotypes. Sometimes it is used to match a student with a “profile” of previous shooters, an approach thoroughly discredited by research on school shootings. Moreover, it is sometimes used in place of providing students with their legally guaranteed services and supports. Typically, students referred to threat assessment wind up with law enforcement records even when they are determined not to be a threat. These records may follow them beyond the years they are in school. Regardless of the intent of threat assessment, further study of the possible misuse and misapplication of threat assessment protocols is urgently needed. 


What can be done to reduce the likelihood of major acts of violence at school?

While no method is foolproof, cultivating school environments where students respect adults and feel comfortable talking to them - not the presence of police - is a vital step in effectively reducing the likelihood of major acts of violence. For example, a student may overhear a discussion about a possible act of extreme violence by a current or former student and report it to a teacher. Researchers call these situations “averted violence.” 


Students are more likely to come forward with information that will prevent major acts of violence when they feel supported, respected, and valued. Evidence of trauma - due to bullying, isolation, or abuse - often begins to appear months or years before an attack. Schools can intervene before a student escalates to a crisis point. When trust is non-existent, broken, or when students view adults as acting unfairly, they are reluctant to report a potential threat. This is especially true for students of color, who are less likely to trust school police than white students. Importantly, interactions between police and youth (and their loved ones), in schools and communities, can result in long-lasting physical and emotional harm.


The billions of dollars spent on zero tolerance policies, police presence, enhanced security measures, and increased surveillance can create a school environment where students are less trustful of adult staff, and they do not prevent extreme acts of violence. The money used to fund police officers and other security measures would be better invested in mental wellness professionals and creating supportive school communities. Increased funding for supports means students can receive the support and resources they need to thrive and be successful in their schools.

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