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Ending Zero Tolerance: The Crisis of Absolute School Discipline

reviewed by Laura Isbell & Kathryn Dixon - January 24, 2019

coverTitle: Ending Zero Tolerance: The Crisis of Absolute School Discipline
Author(s): Derek W. Black
Publisher: New York University Press, New York
ISBN: 1479877026, Pages: 256, Year: 2018
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Ending Zero Tolerance by Derek W. Black details problems with disciplinary practices in the educational system by examining specific outcomes of court cases that illuminate larger patterns. The author outlines the history of disciplinary policies that have led to current zero tolerance policies, presents the disproportionality of policy implementation among certain student populations, and offers ideas for school discipline reform. Ending Zero Tolerance is organized in two parts: Part One, “The Making of an Educational Crisis,” and Part Two, “Courts’ Role in Ending a Crisis.” Throughout the book, Black provides anecdotes that describe archaic disciplinary practices that lead to expulsion and suspension for relatively minor infractions. It is important to note that Black is a former attorney and Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law.


Part One, “The Making of an Educational Crisis,” is covered in Chapters One through Three. The author guides the reader through the three chapters by exploring historical cases in the United States and identifying the inequalities they illustrate with regard to discipline and prejudice. The chapters in Part One focus on the history of zero tolerance, due process, and inadequate policy reform. Black emphasizes the history of disproportionately high rates of suspensions and expulsions among African American students, beginning during desegregation and continuing to the present. An important aspect of this phenomenon is the view many white educators hold of black children and adolescents as troublemakers who must be controlled. Black cites a vast body of research showing that student suspensions occur as early as pre-k, beginning the cycle of subsequent suspensions, distrust in educators and schools, and the widening of achievement gaps. At the end of Chapter One, Black further emphasizes that discipline is “no longer a tool through which to teach students but the process through which to exclude the undesirables” (p. 46).


Black concludes Part One by suggesting that “courts must be part of the solution, rather than complicate the problem” (p. 98). He argues that there needs to be a complete intervention and revamping of disciplinary procedures at both a school system and judicial level. Creating a preventive and proactive approach to discipline that reduces suspensions and expulsions is essential to maintaining students’ rights while providing a safe learning environment for all students.


Part Two, “Courts’ Role in Ending a Crisis,” is presented in Chapters Four through Seven. The author argues for rational disciplinary approaches that account for individual circumstances and nuance. Additionally, Black poses questions about the role of constitutional rights in school discipline policies and practices, arguing for the need to revamp and rewrite disciplinary procedures in schools. Central to this discussion is a school’s responsibility to look at a student’s intent and culpability. In doing so, “there needs to be attention to the scientific and sociological studies involving immaturity, responsibility, and peer pressure” (p. 147).


Currently, disciplinary policies involving zero tolerance focus strictly on punishment by expulsion or suspension as opposed to prevention and remediation to keep students in the classroom. Black highlights research on the long-term effects of zero tolerance policies, including lost educational time that leads to increased student achievement gaps. Citing research, Black claims that following poverty, “out-of-school suspension is the next strongest predictor of achievement” (p. 181). Even more harmful, he claims, is that expulsion continues to deepen the racial achievement gap, and if educators and policymakers do not work together to create a change, these gaps will only continue to widen.


School districts have a choice in the disciplinary approaches they utilize. Black lays out an argument for approaching discipline incidents as individual cases, with common sense, and with the confidence to apply consequences appropriate given the particular circumstances surrounding the incident. There is also a need to incorporate disciplinary procedures that are free of bias and that support the care and success of our students. Black argues that a more individualized, context-informed response is needed, and that the more students are expelled or suspended for relatively minor infractions, the more learning time, trust in educators and the school system, and opportunities for success are lost.


This text provides educators with an opportunity to delve into the history of school discipline policies to gain a better understanding of how we got to a place of ineffective and harmful zero tolerance policies. It also raises hard questions about the role of implicit bias and systemic racism in our education system, and provides policymakers with information they can use to effect positive change.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 24, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22642, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:02:52 PM

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About the Author
  • Laura Isbell
    Texas A&M University-Commerce
    E-mail Author
    LAURA ISBELL is an assistant professor at Texas A&M University-Commerce in the curriculum and instruction department. She is an advisor and masterís program coordinator in the curriculum and instruction department. Her research interests include teacher preparation, teacher quality, academic and behavioral interventions, and educational policy.
  • Kathryn Dixon
    Texas A&M University-Commerce
    E-mail Author
    KATHRYN DIXON is an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, specializing in literacy at Texas A&M University-Commerce. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in literacy education. Her research interests include education and language policy, and preservice teacher development of culturally responsive teaching mindsets.
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