Scrutiny Intensifies Around Zero Tolerance, School to Prison Pipeline

As suspensions and expulsions continue at an alarming rate across the nation, lawmakers are taking another look at decade-old zero tolerance discipline policies that are doing more harm than good.

Civil rights advocates have long called out harsh disciplinary measures for the disproportionate effect they have on at-risk students and students of color.  In March, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ survey found that Black students are more than three-and-a-half times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled, In addition, more than 70 percent of students arrested in school were Black or Hispanic.

A new article by University of South Florida Assistant Professor Zorka Karanxha and graduate student Eric S. Hall details how zero tolerance is funneling students in Florida and across the nation into the juvenile justice system.

In  “School Today, Jail Tomorrow: The Impact of Zero Tolerance on the Over-Representation of Minority Youth in the Juvenile System,” Karanxha and Hall write, “The growing number of school suspensions over the past decade has typically reflected a rising rate in the prison population, a trend that reflects a change in school policy to more punitive practices as opposed to an actual increase in the behavioral patterns of today’s youth.”

Many students are suspended for non-violent offenses that do not pose any threat to public safety and Black males receive harsher punishments for engaging in similar behaviors as their White counterparts.

According to Karanxha and Hall’s research, referral rates for Black males students is 2-3 times that of White male students in 91 percent of Florida’s counties.

The authors also point out that “once students experience exclusionary disciplinary actions, they experience great difficulty being readmitted into schools, which further exacerbates the dropout rate and school-to-prison pipeline.”

“The most important thing is that there is disproportionate punishment,” Karanxha said. “We’re not saying that we don’t want safe schools, but we have to be able to differentiate between criminality and misbehavior. I think we’ve kind of blurred that line.”

Many lawmakers agree. In June, both the Maryland and Michigan boards of education resolved to rethink their discipline policies in order to decrease suspensions. Major counties in California, Colorado, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina and Delaware have also taken up zero tolerance reform.

Karanxha and Hall argue that the missed instruction time that results from suspensions and expulsions make a high level of academic achievement nearly impossible and therefore push students out of school and into the juvenile justice system.

“What is a child going to do once he or she is suspended, what’s going to come of that?” Karanxha said. “If a child is suspended for regular misbehavior, he or she is not going to sit at home and read a book.”

Karanxha said the unfair policies also perpetuate the marginalization of many students by reinforcing stereotypes of black youth culture as inherently criminal or violent.. Zero tolerance also sends a damaging message to students who remain in in the classroom: this is how people are sorted; this is where you belong in society.

The National Education Association believes that while protecting the safety of students and staff is a school’s most important responsibility, zero tolerance is too severe and appears to be counterproductive. In his July 4 address at the 2012 NEA Representative Assembly, NEA Executive Director John Stocks condemned zero tolerance policies as an egregious violation of civil rights.

“Shoving our kids out of schools, shoving them away from the support they need, and denying them access from the tools that will equip them for life … It’s the ultimate act of intolerance and condemnation,” Stocks said. “And if we don’t do something, we will perpetuate the school to prison pipeline.”

As a part of its commitment to end racial profiling on a community-based level, NEA will be partnering with other organizations to challenge and change zero tolerance discipline policies in schools.

Karanxha said zero tolerance policies warrant both national attention and immediate reform.

“That’s the concern – how do we take a hard look at ourselves and what we do?” asked Karanxha. “We need to take a stand as leaders and educators to move away from this punishment and really educate.”

Read more about alternatives to zero tolerance

  • Teachers may be interested in Rethinking Schools’ special issue on the school-to-prison pipeline. It includes many strong articles, including:

    – An exclusive interview with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow
    – An investigative feature by Annette Fuentes, “Arresting Development: Zero Tolerance and the Criminalization of Children”
    – An article by master educator Linda Christensen “The Classroom-to-Prison Pipeline”

    See more here:

  • Terri Fontenot

    My problem is not working with the students. We have 5th graders that think they run the school (and they do) and if you dare to correct the behavior they want to get you fired! I cannot teach 25-27 students while 5-6 are disrupting the classroom. I hear what are you doing with your management? Well, I am managing the kids and working with them and building relationships. I don’t look at a student’s skin color when sending to the office, I look at the other students who want and need to learn. We need to be pulling the parents in and holding them responsible. Most of the time the TV or video games are raising these kids!!!!

  • Laura

    I agree we need parent accountability- but I think that also involves the parents comprehending school policies. It’s a vicious circle. It would help if there were more school psychologists and social workers, and teacher training on behaviors that signal non-cognitive needs. Teachers have so much pressure on them!

  • Connie Nelson

    We need more teachers…smaller numbers of kids in classrooms…time out rooms at school monitored by counselor…and exercise opportunities.

  • Gail

    I agree that we need to make students (and their parents) accountable for their behaviors in the classroom. However, I have a serious problem with the zero tolerance policy. I am an educator living and teaching in the state of New York.

    My son attended a school in Florida in 9th grade. He was regularly teased by one particular boy in the classroom until, one day, he poured some paper scraps over a boy’s head after being called “gay” prior to the beginning of a class. The boy kicked him in the stomach in response (he was aiming lower but missed), sending him falling backwards over his desk. My son, the desk and chair fell to the ground. The noise brought the teacher back into the classroom just as my son got back up and punched the guy in the stomach in response. Both boys were immediately suspended from school (zero tolerance policy).

    As an educator and responsible parent, I was mortified that my son was involved in a physical altercation and went to the school immediately. I found out that my son was expelled for 10 days, and that the teachers were not required to send work/assignments to him during that time. In their eyes, he had lost the right to learn. My son has a processing disorder and a 504 in the state of NY. Returning to school 10 days behind left him permanently behind and he had the worst educational year of his life. It was hard work getting him to find relevance in continuing to finish out his year. He felt that it was hopeless and he was wasting his time. And it left him with the impression that the teachers and administrators in his school could care less about him, his education, or his future.

    My son is not a violent person. He is a ballet dancer. And he is white. The zero tolerance policy made it almost impossible for him to succeed the rest of the school year. And he has successful, professional, and supportive parents. I can only imagine the difficulty that students with less home support must encounter in similar situations.

    I agree that there should be no tolerance for disruptive behavior. But there have to be ways to keep a student engaged in the educational system, even when they’ve erred. We need to keep in mind that it is our goal to educate. Out of building suspension with an educational aide, to keep him up to date on his studied and assignments during those 10 days would have been a better alternative to my son’s situation. I do not condone his response to the boy that kicked him and called him gay. But I understand it. Zero tolerance policy does not allow for administrative judgement and flexible decisions on how to handle individual situations.

    I’m glad to see Zero Tolerance is being revisited.

  • Sally Falkenhagen

    Students need to be held accountable for disruptive, intimidating, and violent behaviors immediately and they must be removed from the classroom so the other students can learn in a safe environment. We need funding to be able to provide counseling and teach more appropriate behaviors and parents should be involved in the re-teaching process. With all the recent budget cuts Counselors were the first to go…instead of less we need more! Sometimes kids are behaving in ways that are socially acceptable at home and sometimes Parents need tools to help them deal with their children appropriately. Expulsion and suspension won’t work without the re-teaching and support, but education won’t happen if violence and disruption are tolerated in our classrooms or on playgrounds. Teachers need to be able to teach and students need to feel safe and be able to concentrate on learning. Provide support!

  • KME

    While I strongly believe in giving every student every opportunity to learn and to succeed in school, there are, unfortunately, some students who have absolutely no intention of learning when they go to school and, if left in the classroom, they will essentially make it impossible for 30 other students in the classroom to learn effectively.

    By the time they get to middle school many of these students are way too far behind to do the work required of them and many of them even refuse to work with the person assigned to bring them up to speed. So they spend most of their class periods talking loudly with their neighbors, thereby making it difficult for ANYONE to concentrate.

    Unfortunately, many of these students are more interested in impressing their peers in the neighborhood than they are impressing anyone in the schools. Gangs are a HUGE part of the problem. They entice these kids early on with the promise of easy money and once these kids makes it their goal to make easy money, it is almost a certainty that no teacher is ever going to reach them.

    Just like in school, there are very stringent rules to being in a gang and one of the rules of being in a gang is to help the gang find new sources of easy money. So once these kids are in a gang, it is actually beneficial for them to get suspended from school on a regular basis so that they can meet with the gang’s suppliers and then take the gang’s products to school.

    So while zero tolerance may work in the short-run, gangs have figured out how to use the zero tolerance policy to their advantage. It provides them with a revolving door for their products.

    For this reason, I strongly suggest that problem students be sent to camps in which many of the conveniences of life are deprived to them. If they are forced to gather and grow their own food, build their own shelters, and find their own heat, they are more apt to learn WHY school is important. Until they are able to understand that school makes the conveniences of life possible, they won’t have any respect for what the schools are trying to accomplish and will continue to rebel against anyone associated with the schools.

  • Ann Kelly

    Obviously, the people who make wrong judgments about these things have not been teachers faced with disruptive children. I suggest that every parent who does not control their child at home and in school be made to sit with them in class for at least a week. If the child regresses after the parent leaves then back the parent comes again even if they must be there for months. The other thing that might work is a fine. Money talks! Adults get fines for misbehavior so why not fine the parents of these children?

  • Amy Hu

    This is a very complicated subject. I am a teacher in a public school system. I have seen how students disrupt the learning process but I have also seen their backgrounds. I can see why they disrupt. They have so many pipelines routing them toward destruction. I don’t think criminalizing them is the solution.
    Perhaps boarding schools, separated by gender, might rescue some of our African American students. The boarding schools need to have all of the trappings of the middle class boarding schools with nice uniforms, good fresh food and pleasant living quarters.
    It would also be good if we could have some classrooms that are sheltered from disruptive influence. This way the students, who are capable of advancing,can do so without having to fight to stay focused,

  • I have been teaching in an urban high school for 32 years. Students are expelled for violents acts–fights and assaults-and for possessing and/or being under the influence of drugs or alcohol–none of which are not trivial offenses. Most are immediately cited by the police officer assigned to our building and remanded to their parents or taken to the youth center. If the offending students aren’t expelled and remain in the building, where are they supposed to be housed? What staff member wants to be responsible for a violent and/or high student? And what about the safety of the other students and staff? Isn’t it fair to have a safe environment for everyone? I have devoted my life’s work to inner-city kids and it is truly heartbreaking to watch so many of them make incredibly bad choices over & over. Our district has an alternative school, but the home school has to go through too many time-consuming hoops to enroll a chronically-offending student in the alternative program. As funding is slashed for public schools, already stessed teachers are now being asked to fix seriously at-risk students who often need intense psychological interventions. I am not a trained mental health professional, a probation officer or a detention center guard. I teach French. Please let me do that.

  • Carlos

    This is an interesting topic, but I’m amazed that no one calls any attention to the fact that there is an overwhelming disparity as to which students are not tolerated. Boys.

    We’ve feminized the curricula for the past couple decades in order to help girls, created barriers and disincentives for male teachers in elementary schools, and have a system of family law that routinely divorces children from their fathers when the mother is inconvenienced by it. We’ve taken away basically every positive male role model in many boys lives and then, when they inevitably act out, we drug them and enforce a zero tolerance policy against them acting in the very manner we should, by all indicators, expect them to behave. We will not solve these problems until we define them correctly and, as politically incorrect as it may be, sometimes we need to address the fact that females are not always the victims.

    Refusing to acknowledge that our institutions and policies can have a disproportionately negative effect upon men and boys will only lead to other flawed solutions to solve a problem which can’t be acknowledge because it doesn’t fit the popular narrative that boys are privileged and need discipline, and girls are oppressed and need empowerment and encouragement. Sometimes, a lot of times.. most of the time, it really is a zero-sum game.

  • LD

    Improve diet to address magnesium deficiency precipitated by Sorbitol foods and behavior and motivation will improve. The behavior issues are being greatly influenced by water treated with fluoride (causes enolase/B12 deficiency), Sorbitol laced MMR vaccinations (choline/ATP deficiency) and diet front loaded with processed sugar and sweeteners. I’ve already vetted this information for accuracy. You are doing battle with pharmaceutical companies who are poisoning our children. The fallout is behavioral/mental health manifestation albeit the etiology is medical, which is why neither mental health medications nor behavior interventions are working. Children are becoming increasingly magnesium deficient on these issues with fallout presenting in a pharmaceutically induced brain trauma. You can not write policy, objectives or goals to correct this. You can not educate it. you have to stop poisoning your children.

  • My mother allowed me to drop out of school after I graduated 8th grade. I was shy and bullied, but Mom taught me to read at 3 so I was advanced in my reading comprehension. By 6th grade I had a 12th grade reading comprehension. This has carried me all my life. At 14 as a homeschooled student, I learned latin and zoology from books we got at the Good Will. Ditto with Medical Terminology, and as a programmed book, it stays with me even today.
    So I nhave to say-teach your kids to read at HOME, and they will teach themselves for the rest of their lives.