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Zero Tolerance: The cruel denial of a second chance

The distinctly cruel expression "Zero Tolerance" caught on as the result of a government campaign in the 1980s to suppress drug use by severely punishing even the most minor infraction.

Zero evidence for zero tolerance

New report finds no support for harsh discipline in schools

May 15, 2001

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Can the use of zero tolerance in school discipline improve student behavior or lead to safer schools? Probably not, concludes a report released today (May 15) by the Indiana Education Policy Center at the Indiana University School of Education.

The report, "Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice," a review of the use of zero tolerance since its inception in the 1980s, finds no credible evidence that removing students from school has made a contribution to school safety, and substantial data showing that school suspension and expulsion are associated with a number of negative outcomes for schools and students.

The report finds that although the use of suspension and expulsion for non-dangerous behavior places an increasing number of students at risk for being removed from school, those risks are in no way justified by the results of zero tolerance.

"Zero tolerance is a political response, not an educationally sound solution," said IU 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."

"Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence" is available on the Indiana Education Policy Center's Web site ( or the Safe and Responsive Schools Project's Web site ( A hard copy of the report can be ordered from the Indiana Education Policy Center by calling 812-855-1240.

Among the report's findings:

(1) Suspension and expulsion are not reserved for serious misbehavior, and in fact are often used in response to minor misbehavior or attendance-related issues.

(2) Minority students, especially African-American students, are consistently overexposed to suspension and expulsion, despite a lack of evidence that those students act out more.

(3) Zero tolerance is used so inconsistently across schools and school districts that some researchers have concluded that students wishing to lower their chances of being suspended should change schools rather than change their behavior.

(4) High rates of recidivism suggest that zero tolerance is not effective in changing student behavior.

(5) The use of zero tolerance may increase school dropout. For example, students who have been suspended are more likely to drop out by 10th grade.

Schools that use harsh and punitive discipline risk a number of negative student reactions, including anger, aggression and even severe emotional reactions. In particular, the report suggests that suspension and expulsion may increase risks of juvenile delinquency by giving at-risk students more time out on the street with other antisocial youth.

"Behavioral psychology teaches us that punishment is only effective if it changes behavior," Skiba said. "Some of these results suggest that suspension and expulsion may act more as a reward than as a punishment for some students."

Published by the Indiana Education Policy Center, a nonpartisan educational research center, the report notes that many school districts have begun to move away from zero tolerance policies and lists a number of implications for educators wishing to make school discipline more effective:

(1) Avoid one-size-fits-all punishments. Institute a graduated system of consequences where the punishment fits the offense.

(2) Expand the array of options available to schools for dealing with student misbehavior.

(3) Implement preventive measures that can improve school climate and reconnect alienated students.

The report concludes that preventive approaches, such as prevention of bullying and improved classroom management, hold greater promise than zero tolerance for improving student behavior and reducing violence.

"We sometimes assume that we need zero tolerance because prevention takes too long to work," Skiba noted. "But our best knowledge suggests that schools are more likely to be able to reduce their chances of violence by putting in place preventive programs that teach students how to solve their problems without resorting to violence."

(Debbie O'Leary, School of Education, 812-856-8031,

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