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Zero Tolerance Policy in Schools: Rationale, Consequences, and Alternatives

by Ronnie Casella - 2003

This article discusses theory and related policies that support zero tolerance policy in schools, including rational choice theory in criminology and national crime policies based on deterrence. Potential consequences of zero tolerance policy implementation in schools are also described. These consequences are shown to involve outcomes similar to those identified by researchers who have studied national crime policy, especially in relation to incarceration. Drawing from the qualitative data, anecdotal evidence, and related research, the article concludes with suggestions for violence prevention based on a model of restorative justice, including a practical agenda for what schools may do to prevent violence and to discipline students who act aggressively.

This article discusses theory and related policies that support zero tolerance policy in schools, including rational choice theory in criminology and national crime policies based on deterrence. Potential consequences of zero tolerance policy implementation in schools are also described. These consequences are shown to involve outcomes similar to those identified by researchers who have studied national crime policy, especially in relation to incarceration. Drawing from the qualitative data, anecdotal evidence, and related research, the article concludes with suggestions for violence prevention based on a model of restorative justice, including a practical agenda for what schools may do to prevent violence and to discipline students who act aggressively.

A prison inmate who was interviewed for a study on violence prevention claimed that the only way to thwart aggressive behavior in school was to put all of schooling on film: ‘‘School needs to be videotaped, overseen, put on camera, let all the parents see. I’m serious. Put it all on film.’’

As many educators and researchers know much of schooling has already been put on film. It is not uncommon to see security cameras (CCTVs) in hallways and entrances, capturing on tape the goings-on of school life. What supports most video cameras in schools is the belief in the power of deterrence to maintain control of young people (Devine, 1996; Robinson, 2001). However, what this inmate had in mind was different from what supported most video surveillance. What this young, African American man wanted to catch on tape were the actions of school staff who, in his experience, never gave him a chance to graduate from high school and, along with his mother, let him down: "Like I said, I loved school, but school let me down. I loved my mother, but my mother let me down.’’ Wanting to turn the cameras on those who put them there, he shared a perspective with researchers whose work has indicated that some forms of school discipline policy can facilitate the failure of troubled young people who are, little by little, inched out of school through suspension and expulsion (Civil Rights Project & The Advancement Project, 2000; Dunbar, 2001; Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 1985; Fine, 1991).

These two ways of interpreting the mention of a security camera represent the primary debate over zero tolerance policy in schools. In much literature, research, and everyday conversations, zero tolerance (along with its use of video surveillance, police officers, referrals to the criminal justice system, and suspension and expulsion requirements) is either hailed as a logical deterrent to violence in schools or is vilified for its unfair treatment of especially poor youths of color. However, policy is never as simple as polemics such as these suggest, and as in other policy polemics an artificial dichotomy belies the many different aspects of policy creation, implementation, and outcomes.

This article draws on qualitative research conducted between 1997 and 2001 in three public schools and a state prison as well as anecdotal evidence gathered through work as a high school volunteer and consultant to examine zero tolerance policy according to its rationale, consequences, and alternatives. The discussion contextualizes the issue of zero tolerance by synthesizing what can be gleaned from firsthand experiences and field-based research involving observations, interviews with school personnel and students, and analyses of crime policies (Casella, 2000, 2001, 2002). Field notes, interview excerpts, and examples presented here are not meant to reflect conditions in all schools; rather, they point to potential outcomes of zero tolerance as it is implemented. They are meant to highlight trends seen in extant research (see, e.g., Devine, 1996; Dunbar, 2001; Skiba & Leone, 2001). After examining the rationale and consequences of zero tolerance policy, the article concludes with suggestions for policy makers, school administrators, and consultants who seek to develop appropriate school discipline policies.

To understand the rationale and consequences of zero tolerance policy in school, one must examine the policy within a structural framework, especially in relation to national crime and prison policies. Education policy is one layer of social policy that includes crime policy, child welfare policy, and other overarching social policies intended for youth (Casella, 2002; Guinier & Torres, 2002; Toby, 1994). In reference to discipline policy in schools, zero tolerance is one form of national crime policy formulated by the U.S. Congress in 1994. Although considered overly punitive by some, the get-tough policies that were developed are hailed by others as a significant factor accounting for reduced rates of crime and violence in the 1990s. To examine zero tolerance as it developed alongside national crime policy, the research presented here includes fieldwork and interviews in a prison, which place zero tolerance policy within a national framework of crime prevention efforts. However, the focus of this article is the rationale and consequences of zero tolerance policy in schools and, most important, alternatives to the policy based on restorative justice. The last section of the article, which outlines strategies for violence prevention and discipline policy, is meant to provide schools with practical guidelines that can be implemented with little cost and strain on resources and staff.


Supporters of zero tolerance policy emphasize that many forms of violence prevention are needed in a school and that zero tolerance is one of them. Even at the federal level, zero tolerance was never meant to be the sole means of discipline in a school (Blair, 1999; Heaney & Michela, 1999; Trump, 1999). Zero tolerance policy is one part of a larger package of federal school violence prevention initiatives that were developed in the 1990s (Casella, 2001; Stetzner, 1999). These national initiatives fall into one of three categories: (1) the development of violence prevention and conflict resolution programs in schools; (2) attempts at gun control laws; and (3) the implementation of punitive and judicial forms of discipline. Zero tolerance policy derives from the latter two forms of initiatives.

The Safe Schools Act of 1994 (PL 103-227) and the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1994 (PL 103-382) provided funding for peer mediation, conflict resolution, and other violence prevention programs associated with the first category of federal initiatives. The second category involving gun control was represented by the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 (PL 101-647), which prohibited firearms within 1,000 ft of school property. However, both the second and third categories involving gun control and the stiffening of punitive discipline were represented by the Gun-Free Schools Act (PL 103-227). This legislation mandated that schools expel students for not less than 1 year if it is determined by a hearing officer that the student brought a gun to school. Although schools could not be forced to comply, as an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the law required that federal funding be withheld from a school in the event that the school did not conform.

Since the enactment of the Gun-Free Schools Act, amendments have been made to extend the legislation’s application. In 1995, the word firearms was amended to read weapons. This made it possible for school personnel to expel students in possession of not only the broader category of weapons but also items that can be used as weapons, such as nail clippers, files, and pocket knives (Schwartz & Rieser, 2001). In addition, in 1997 Senator Jesse Helms introduced an amendment that enabled local educational agencies to expel not only students carrying weapons but also students in possession of an illegal drug or drug paraphernalia. As decision makers in states and municipalities adopted the policy, they too included less serious violations punishable by zero tolerance standards. One study reported that by the 1996–1997 school year, 94% of U.S. public schools enforced zero tolerance policy in cases involving firearms and weapons, 88% for cases involving drugs, 87% for incidents involving alcohol use, and 79% for situations involving fights between students (see also Curwin & Mendler, 1999; Johnson, Boyden, & Pittz, 2001; Skiba & Leone, 2001; Stein, 2001).

Although zero tolerance policy represents federal efforts to restrict firearms and to support suspension and expulsion, there is also an aspect of it that is meant to have a preventative component. It is a policy used to head off trouble and is congruent with other national crime policies based on preventative detention. Robinson (2001) described this tactic as ‘‘punishing dangerousness.’’ He noted that in the last decades of the 20th century the United States changed its crime reduction strategies from punishing past crimes to preventing future violations through the incarceration and control of potentially dangerous offenders. Like habitual-offender statutes, minimum sentencing laws, community notification of convicted sex offenders living in the neighborhood, sexual predator statutes (which force inmates to serve longer prison terms if they are deemed still dangerous at the end of their sentences), zero tolerance policy attempts to prevent violence by punishing young people because of their potential for violence and for their displayed dangerousness. What one school security guard called ‘‘getting to the heart of the problem’’ meant that the school police did not wait until a serious crime was committed to press serious charges: ‘‘These days there is no way that we can wait until we have a problem in action, a fight, attack—or worse—we have to get to the heart of the problem, nip it in the bud.’’ Litke (1996, p. 78) noted that zero tolerance in one school was expanded to include not only those who acted violently but also those students who were responsible for the promotion of violence.

In addition to preventative detention, the rationale of zero tolerance policy is based on several presuppositions. First, violence in school has become drastic and lethal; therefore, zero tolerance is meant to be a just and swift response to a crisis situation in schools (Ashford, 2000; Litke, 1996). As noted earlier, it is also meant to be implemented as a whole-school package that includes funding for mediation, counseling, and conflict resolution programs. Blair (1999, p. 37), for example, described four basic conditions that need to exist in schools for zero tolerance to be successful. These included clear consequences and consistent application of punishment, collaborative development of an alternative school system for expelled students, knowledge of the pitfalls and benefits of zero tolerance in other states, and integration of other violence prevention and conflict resolution programs.

Supporters also draw on studies that demonstrate that violence prevention programs coupled with zero tolerance policy can be an effective means of reducing violence in schools. In their national study of violence prevention, Petersen et al. (1998) reported that, according to survey data, the four most effective violence prevention strategies entailed a mix of policing and conflict resolution efforts, including teachers present in the hallways, the use of security personnel, the development of police and school liaisons, and peer mediation and conflict resolution training. Additionally, zero tolerance policy is viewed by its supporters as a necessary policy in the event that other forms of discipline and violence prevention do not work. Further, there is evidence that suggests that violence and criminality decreased across the United States after the implementation of zero tolerance policy as both crime policy at the national level and school policy through the Gun-Free Schools Act (National Center for Education Statistics, 1998; Sheley & Wright, 1998; Sinclair, 1999).

There are also studies from social and behavioral psychology suggesting that people become conditioned to rules and learn to accept new expectations placed on them (Bandura, 1977; Bouffard, Exum, & Paternoster, 2000; Pallone & Hennessy, 1993). Burke and Herbert (1996) reported on how a zero tolerance policy in a Tacoma, Washington, high school, combined with other violence prevention efforts and an aggressive communication campaign to familiarize students and parents with zero tolerance, helped to reduce incidents of fighting. In the 1st year of the policy, the number of fights was reduced by nearly half. From a record high of 195 fights during the 1990–1991 school year, the number dropped to three fights in the 1993–1994 school year. The authors noted that between 1991 and 1994 only two parents protested the implementation of the policy. They also reported that the enrollment at the school increased from 1,110 to 1,600, partly because parents wanted their children transferred to the school because of its growing positive reputation. The authors concluded, ‘‘The high expectations of the zero tolerance policy coupled with consistent consequences has created a more secure environment, allowing staff and students to redirect their focus to the process of education’’ (p. 54).

Thus, the policy rationale for zero tolerance can be found in the Gun- Free Schools Act, and the research rationale can be found in studies that demonstrate reduced rates of violence in schools and streets. But what of the theoretical rationale for the policy?

The underlying theory is rational choice theory. A driving force in the economics of crime, rational choice theory states that individuals choose among a number of options of behavior and that their final choice can be understood as rational if examined in the context of the individual’s goals, the prohibitions and laws of society, and the circumstances of the event (Agnew, 2000; Becker, 1968; Cook & Levi, 1990). The mutual reliance on rational choice theory in both school and prison settings connects their crime-fighting strategies. As in high schools, where the goal for many students is to get out by graduating, passing the GED, or dropping out—and students’ behaviors are controlled partly by a prerogative of those who work in school systems to award or deny a graduation diploma—in most prisons there is a system of behavior control that could either speed up or slow down inmates’ advancement to getting out, what the inmates interviewed for this article referred to as EOS—end of sentence.

When inmates misbehaved in the prison they were given tickets or placed in seg (solitary confinement). The more tickets and segs inmates received the less chance they had of getting EOS when they came up for parole. With zero tolerance policy mandated by the Department of Corrections in Connecticut in the mid-1990s, it was required that inmates complete 85% of their sentences. Prior to zero tolerance, inmates could have 10 days deducted from their sentences for each month that they spent in prison without receiving tickets from correction officers. One inmate described the pre-zero tolerance days: ‘‘If you didn’t get into any trouble, no tickets, you get 10 days off the back. So instead of doing 5 years flat, you do 3 years and a half, or 3 years, 9 months. If you get a job you get 7-day credit. If you get your 7-day job, they give you a day a week [if you don’t get tickets]. If you do programs you can get 15 days off for each one.’’

This is a system of behavior modification much like the rewards and punishments that accompany some forms of discipline and classroom management in schools. In both cases, what zero tolerance policy does is heighten the consequence side of the crime and punishment balance, attempting to convince individuals that the consequences are not worth the risks. In interviews with inmates, many discussed the effect that the minimum sentencing law—the 85%Fhad on them. In a violence prevention workshop exercise involving the inmates brainstorming on the meaning of violence, along with ‘‘pain,’’ ‘‘suffering,’’ and ‘‘anger,’’ one inmate included ‘‘85%.’’ In an interview, one inmate echoed the feelings of other incarcerated men:

There is no way I want to be staying here [in prison] with these knuckleheads. I have plans for myself so I just keep a low profile. I hang with the older guys, I play chess with this old dude.  That’s what I do. I keep to myself, I stay away from anything that will get me tickets, I keep my mind on the 85%, keep myself cool, and count my days to EOS.

Although replacing irrational choices with rational ones is a faulty way of thinking about violence prevention or a discipline policy, and although there are strains of rational choice theory that can be overly deterministic and behaviorist in nature, some people, in some cases, do make choices based on costs, benefits, prohibitions, and consequences. Observations of students suddenly applying themselves to work in classrooms and behaving better in hallways as a guard approaches, choosing not to goof off in particular hallways because of surveillance cameras, and their own explanations of how they behave better, as one student remarked, ‘‘because the school got serious about taking care of problems quickly,’’ point to the fact that some youths choose to act appropriately in school because the threat of punishment exists.

Boyd, Crowson, and van Geel (1994) explained that rational choice theory has built-in biases and can simplify reality but that it is also a way of understanding certain complexities, such as the tensions between the goals of individuals and those of organizations (including schools, prisons, and gangs). In his study of gangs, Short (1997, p. 113) explained how presumably irrational choices, such as joining a gang or firing a gun during a gang confrontation, are rational in certain cases. When a gang leader brandishes a gun during a gang fight and fires indiscriminately, Short explained how this action is a rational choice among limited alternatives. The fight had escalated and the gang leader felt compelled to do something to stop the fight, which he did by firing his gun. Unfortunately, he ended up wounding one fighter and was imprisoned. But the firing of the gun can still be seen as a rational choice among limited alternatives—one that made sense given the context. For the gang leader described by Short, choosing not to fire his gun may have proven more disastrous.


Supporters of zero tolerance policy understand that discipline should not be overly punitive and unfair and point to zero tolerance policy as a way of bringing uniformity to disparate and sometimes racist discipline polices in schools. Litke (1996) pointed out that, in time, zero tolerance may actually lead to fewer expulsions and suspensions as students become accustomed to the expectations of the policy. Schreiner (1996) reported that in New Jersey’s Camden County Regional High School District, zero tolerance contributed to a 30% decrease in superintendent disciplinary hearings and that drug offenses decreased by nearly half. Supporters also feel that zero tolerance concretizes discipline policy for schools where enforcement of discipline has become lax; these are schools that are made more dangerous and chaotic by school personnel who have given up on trying to control students (Hyman & Snook, 1999; Trump, 1998). As noted earlier, some supporters cite research and anecdotal evidence by administrators and teachers that demonstrate that as students become accustomed to zero tolerance policy, they learn to obey the new rules, and that this may cause a chain reaction in that people influence each other in positive ways. Burke and Herbert (1996), for example, reported that during the implementation of a zero tolerance policy in a high school (where they were principal and vice-principal, respectively), students attitudes about violence changed: Instead of encouraging others to fight, friends reminded each other of the consequences.

These are plausible claims, but they only describe particular aspects of zero tolerance policy. The consequences that Burke and Herbert refer to (that students will be expelled or suspended) do not account for consequences that can exceed the duration of a suspension or expulsion. These are consequences that may have long-term negative impacts on individuals. Ironically, one negative impact springs from what would appear to be, at first glance, a positive quality of the policy: that while holding students accountable for their actions, zero tolerance is meant to be applied in a consistent and uniformed manner. Although uniformity may help school administrators to pass on consistent expectations to school personnel and students, and to avoid favoritism, bias, and racism in discipline policy, uniformity can also undermine the provision in the Gun- Free Schools Act that states that each incident may be examined on a case-by-case basis. Zirkel (1999), for example, reported on schools that had no exception rules built into their zero tolerance policies in efforts by school personnel to be not only strict but also consistent.

This can lead to several interconnected problems that end up promoting inconsistency. First, if discipline policy is going to simply punish all individuals caught in confrontations, then poor Latino and African American youths will be punished the most because they are more likely to be involved in confrontations than middle-class Caucasians due primarily to structural factors regarding high rates of violence in neighborhoods and families, social isolation, and lack of access to job opportunities (Anderson, 1999; Decker & Van Winkle, 1996; Short, 1997; Tonry, 1995). This is associated with another consequence: that punishment negatively affects those who are already negatively affected by poverty, racism, academic failure, and other realities. Tied to this is the greater difficulty these youths have when trying to recoup after being expelled or suspended from school. Ultimately, then, due partly to their circumstances and their lack of social capital, these young people are penalized more severely than those who can bounce back from a suspension or expulsion. The punishment is different for them; it is not consistent, especially in regard to its severity.

Another consequence of zero tolerance occurs when violence is conflated into one category of behavior that encompasses a broad range of conflicts and confrontations. As the following interview excerpts demonstrate, confrontations are not the same as violence, yet those who are involved in confrontations are sometimes punished as if they had acted violently. Again, this is congruent with Robinson’s (2001) notion of punishing dangerousness.

In the following interview excerpt, a New York school police officer explained how students of color, who are more likely than White youths to be victimized by violence (Short, 1997; Tonry, 1999), are sometimes punished along with the perpetrators of aggression for reasons that are not always clear but are congruent with ideas that discipline should be a consistent form of preventative detention. The officer explained a situation that had occurred the day before:

A girl was walking out of school, a girl with a troubled background, a white female. She knocked the CD player out of the hand of a black male who is an athlete. She walked away. I happened to be standing right there with a police officer so we saw the whole thing. [The boy] followed her and grabbed her purse [and yanked on it]. She turned around and slapped him in the face two or three times so she became the aggressor. She caused the incident in the first place. She did it intentionally [knocking the CD player out of the boy’s hand]. She ended up getting arrested for breach of peace. The young man did not want to press assault charges, but she was still arrested for breach of peace. She also got a 5-day suspension. There were some thoughts that the gentleman did have some involvement, so he received an inschool administrative detention. That happened just as school was getting out at about 2:10 p.m., out in front of the school.

Not only did the Black student have to stay after school, but he also had to do so without having done anything seriously wrong. The involvement of the ‘‘gentleman’’ was vague, if not totally unfounded. The guard claimed that the girl ‘‘caused the incident in the first place’’ and ‘‘did it intentionally,’’ and she was punished for this—in true zero tolerance fashion, by judicial action—but so was somebody who had apparently done nothing wrong. The boy was punished for being involved. For the girl who was suspended, who was White, her trip to the city court building will not only add more trouble to her troubled background but also will increase the likelihood that she will act violently in the future (Arum & Beattie, 1999; De Li, 1999, p. 320; Sampson & Laub, 1993).

Two additional points about this incident highlight other contradictory aspects of zero tolerance. First, although the previous example demonstrates the proarrest and preventative detention mentality of zero tolerance, not all interactions between school police and poor students of color were fraught with tension and potential unfairness. In one high school, the school police officer, who was Black and lived in the city, joked around and chatted with the Black students, and the school police officer in another high school, who was Irish American and a graduate of the high school, could be more lenient than the administrators with both White and Black students. Second, in the previous case, a student of color and a White student ‘‘with a troubled background’’ were punished according to zero tolerance standards. Though poor youths of color suffer most from zero tolerance policy, poor, academically failing White students are also disciplined according to the policy and suffer greater hardships than do those who are financially stable and successful academically. Here, in addition to race, the issue of who is affected and who is not can also be understood according to class, academics, and the value of students to school systems.

Affecting some groups more than others, zero tolerance policy can create blockades for all students. But for some zero tolerance adds another risk factor to lives that are already overburdened with risk factors. Although some students may have the support and know-how to wrangle and maneuver their way back to success after an expulsion or suspension, other students cannot. Applying the policy consistently does not mean that all students receive the same punishment. For example, there are great differences in expulsions when one student is expelled but can afford tutoring and another is expelled but cannot afford to be tutored. The experiences of one girl who had dropped out of school 2 months before graduation is another example of this consequence. Laura, an African American girl who lived with her mother and three sisters, explained how she left school just as she was getting ready to ‘‘walk that stage.’’ She would have been the first girl in her family to graduate from high school:

I did a really stupid thing. I pulled a fire alarm. I knew other kids who did it sometimes and they never got caught but I did. And the school said, ‘‘Do you know that that is a crime? You can go to prison for that.’’ I didn’t go to prison but I got suspended, and right when I got back we had all the Regents tests starting up and I was way behind. I didn’t know what was going on and I knew I would fail because I didn’t get any of the preparation stuff so I was kind of like, ‘‘Why should I even go to school?’’ They’re the ones who kicked me out then they let me back in just so they can show me how much I screwed up my life, but I’m not the only one who did it—yeah, I pulled the alarm—but I didn’t get any help from the school after I already did my punishment. They were just like, ‘‘I hope you learned your lesson.’’

This young woman gave up on herself and school. She will complain about her punishment, accusing school personnel of being unfair, but in the end she will not press her case or accept her punishment and return to school. Upholding the decision to suspend the girl are two factors: one, she broke the law; two, consistency says that she must be suspended like everybody else, even if that means that she will likely drop out of school.

There is a presumed uniformity here that can get twisted in unintended ways. This may have been the case with the Black student, described earlier, whose CD player was knocked out of his hand. It may have been the case with Laura, too, whose circumstances (that if given a suspension, she may drop out of school) were not really considered, or if they were considered, they were not considered carefully enough. It was certainly the case in an incident involving a potential school brawl. A guard in a Connecticut high school described a situation where police were called and everyone involved in the episode, including the one defending himself, was arrested:

A fight broke out—keep in mind that we have 2,500-plus students leaving the school at 2:00, with 38 buses on the streets. A fight broke out on our property, the east driveway, involving one student with, what appeared to be five or six against him, only being helped by a second friend. We attempted to break the fight up and I realized, in my mind, I noticed that it was not going to be a manageable situation. I had our staff, our administrative staff, call 911 and get the police backup. We got the situation under control before they got here. As soon as they heard me call for the police backup, the person who appeared to be attacking ran. We’ve got at least two other names [of those students involved] that I knew. The others I did not know. We got parents involved. Come to find out the one who was being—appeared to be getting—attacked was not as innocent as he should be. Both have a history with each other throughout the summer and they appeared to be affiliated with gangs. The end result was after [the school police officer] did a more thorough investigation, it turns out that the guy being attacked will also be arrested with equal charges as the persons that were attacking him. Right now we have three names that we can associate here. So there are four kids that are going to be arrested for breach of peace with a 10-day suspension for being on school property. So it appears to be cut and dry in the beginning, but the more you dug into it, thereafter, there was a whole lot of motivations that had caused it, and, in fact, some lies.

There is no doubt that brawls can become dangerous, especially among the commotion of 2,500 youths leaving a school and the maneuvering of 38 buses on the street, so clear and decisive action must be taken to prevent people from getting hurt or arrested. But what this guard described was not about preventing people from getting arrested or even hurt. It seemed that the point was to arrest as many youths as possible, even the one getting attacked. In his short description of the attack, the characterization of the boy defending himself changed from the one ‘‘being’’ attacked to the one ‘‘appearing’’ to be attacked. Although the boy may not be guilt-free and ‘‘as innocent as he should be,’’ there is no evidence that he broke the law. When asked what he found out about the boy when they ‘‘dug into it,’’ the guard replied, ‘‘the usual stuff, just the stuff that gets kids in trouble.’’ In addition, there had to be a certain amount of calm during the fight if students were able to hear the guard call police backup and a certain amount of control in effect if students left rather than persisted with their threatening behavior. The guard could not remember if there was actually a punch thrown. In fact, there was not a fight; rather, there was a potential fight. Yet the students were treated as if they had fought. In addition, though the one being attacked may have caused trouble in the past, there appears to be nothing criminal about his actions, yet he is arrested along with several other boys.

In the following case, a student slapped another student, and a similar type of proarrest mentality went into effect. The student doing the slapping, no doubt, is guilty of the act. But simmering conflicts between students should not be dealt with as if it made complete sense for youths to be sent in the direction of prison or as this school security officer maintained, to ‘‘the courts y and a larger problem,’’ because of a slap fight:

Today, we had a guy in the cafeteria and this girl walked up to him. He is a freshman and she is junior or a senior. She slapped him in the face. He slapped her back, got into a full fight, 600 students in the cafeteria. A very explosive situation could have happened. It has in the past—they just beat on one another. I got them out of there real quick. Come to find out on Tuesday last week that she was sitting having her lunch in the cafeteria and he walked up and slapped her in the face. So she told him ‘‘I am going to get you’’ and she did [today]. So they both went out for 10 days [suspension] and they got arrested. Our policy is clear—we don’t tolerate it. You fight, you are going to be arrested, you are going to talk to the courts. If you do enough of it, you will have a larger problem that you are not going to be able to control.

Certainly not all students who are disciplined according to zero tolerance policy are innocent bystanders: Each of these students had slapped at the other. The guard was not sure if conflict resolution solutions had been tried, but he doubted it because no administrative action was taken until the day of the second slap fight in the cafeteria, for which the students were suspended and arrested. But regardless of whether innocent or guilty, or if conflict resolution had been tried in the past, this is a get-tough policy that can have severe consequences for youths especially when arrest is an easy option and a taken-for-granted way of disciplining youths. Arrest may have a deterring effect, but it can also have a crushing effect on young people, especially, as noted earlier, if they are only one step away from dropping out of school.

As with other crime policies of the 1990s, zero tolerance policy supports stiff judicial discipline. The people on the receiving end of this are usually poorly educated, in poor health, and have had few opportunities to pull themselves out from deteriorating communities, broken-down schools, and shattered families. In buildings where hundreds and sometimes thousands of youths are housed for hours each day, and where these kinds of social problems exist, confrontations are inevitable. The violence that occurs when these confrontations escalate can be calamitous. Therefore, schools need a well-developed discipline policy, which should not only solve the problem of violence but also ensure that no student is derailed from her or his education or put in circumstances that increase the likelihood of criminality in the future. But this is where zero tolerance policy falls short.

Zero tolerance strengthens a link between schools and prisons that began a century ago with the development of truant officers. Arresting, but also out-placing, is the primary act that creates the bond, steering youths from school property through the criminal justice system and various outplacements and sometimes into prison. It makes as much sense for school staff to direct students into avenues that may lead to prison as it does for prison staff to be accepting greater numbers of younger people, and even (given the need for educational services in prisons) providing for them their high school educations. This is a poor system of discipline. A better form of discipline would combine what is potentially beneficial about zero tolerance policy, but also recognize what is potentially negative. Zero tolerance holds students accountable for their actions and solves the problem of lax discipline. The alternatives presented in the next section hold students accountable, but they also attempt to educate students rather than derail them.


Zero tolerance policy may have been an appropriate, short-term response to what appeared to be an epidemic of lethal violence in schools in the 1990s. Nevertheless, the implementation of the policy, when viewed closely, shows a side not intended by the legislators and administrators who wanted to put a halt to lethal violence in schools. Zero tolerance policy institutionalizes criminal justice approaches to school discipline. But the scenarios presented in this article indicate that to avoid long-term consequences discipline policy must be fundamentally different from this criminal justice paradigm. The alternatives presented in the following initiatives (see Table 1) are possible changes that schools can make even within constrained work conditions but certainly not without the commitment of policy makers, administrators, teachers, and all school staff who must reject the easy acceptance of out-placement and arrest as a means of school discipline. The point of the initiatives is not only violence prevention and discipline but also to keep students in school.

The two types of initiatives indicate, first, the needed ongoing violence prevention strategies; second, they indicate what should constitute school discipline policy once a violation has occurred in spite of a school’s best efforts to prevent it. The initiatives are meant to address the more subtle, yet serious, problems that promote everyday unruliness in schools and are not meant for acts that pose a serious danger. As noted earlier, zero tolerance is often used to deal with mild offenses it was never, initially, meant to address. The initiatives stated here require work and resources but probably no more than what is already allocated for efforts involving zero tolerance. They can be phased in over time and take into account the concerns of administrators, who are often overextended and strapped for resources. They take into account, as well, the difficulties of teaching and of the sometimes poor working conditions in the profession. They address the concerns of parents, most of whom want only the best for their children in terms of education and safety, and also the needs and wants of students, who also desire safety and a quality education but are sometimes denied them by alienating life situations, long histories of academic failure, or prejudices against them.


There are numerous examples of positive conflict resolution and violence prevention programs (Burstyn, 2001; Hyman and Snook, 1999; Johnson & Johnson, 1995; Vigil, 1999), constructive discipline strategies (Glasser, 1992; Gootman, 2001; Jones & Jones, 2001; Noguera, 2000; Umbriet, 2001), and of progressive and democratic schools (Darling- Hammond, 1997; Harwayne, 1999; Ladson-Billings, 1997; Meier, 1995; Sadovnik & Semel, 2002) that could be models for the implementation of the initiatives. There is no doubt that schools are often working with students who are deeply troubled. The young men in the prison were once kids who arrived at school with problems nobody would want, and the students discussed in this article were, in general, without real support from the school and sometimes from their families. For this reason, schools must offer mentoring and tutoring programs that are well staffed, supported, and respected in the school. Keeping students from falling behind, feeling frustrated, and seeing only failure in their futures is the first step in violence prevention. Teachers and administrators cannot replace parents, but they cannot withhold the care that students need or be denied the resources that they need to support each child’s educational, social, and emotional development.

The downside of these reform and violence prevention strategies is that even when they are initiated, they cannot guarantee a problem-free school. Reform must also include discipline, not just prevention, and take into account the unruly student who continues to cause trouble even after the best intentions and programs of a school are provided. An alternative to suspension could include school service, whereby students are expected to make up for what they did wrong, not just suffer for it. In what is called restorative justice students are expected to right a wrong. It is a way of holding offenders directly accountable for their actions and restoring the emotional and material losses of victims as much as possible (Bazemore & Schiff, 2001; Polk, 2001; Umbreit, 2001, p. xxvii). For example, in a Connecticut school, upon leaving in his car on the first warm day of spring, a rambunctious senior drove up on the curb and spun out, which caused a 3-ft tear in the school lawn. He did not endanger himself or others but had caused damage and did something that could turn dangerous. Instead of being suspended, though, he was given a long talk by an assistant principal about being a cautious driver and then was told to plant seed to repair the grass, which the boy did on a Saturday. In the weeks that followed, the assistant principal told the boy to water the grass, which the boy did, sometimes without being told. Never did the assistant principal humiliate or alienate the student, but neither did he let the student off the hook.

This was a young person who righted his wrong, perhaps learned a lesson, was fairly punished, maybe even learned a bit about planting. In addition, he did outside work in a city where youths spend too much time indoors, usually in front of televisions or video game screens. He may have even developed a bit of an attachment to the school and the assistant principal who gave him his due but did so without putting him down. However, as every administrator and teacher knows, some students are not going to be this easy. There are students who fight and refuse not to fight, students whose offenses are against people, not vegetation. In such cases, students usually receive, at the very least, some kind of in-school suspension. But instead of students just wasting their time, usually sleeping in timeout rooms or in-school suspension centers, these students could be getting tutoring, advisement, or mentoring. Certainly we do not want to punish students with school work—I doubt anybody wants a child to learn that reading a book is punishment, but it is better that students learn mathematics or have a serious and positive conversation with a caring adult than be punished with boredom in a vacant room.

If a problem between students persists, as was the case of the ongoing slap fight between the girl and the boy discussed earlier, the students may be required to go to peer mediation or what Umbreit (2001) called victim offender mediation. Here students have an opportunity to sit down with a trained student mediator (sometimes accompanied by an adult) and resolve their differences through dialogue. In most cases, problems that can otherwise escalate can be resolved through mediation (Casella, 2000; Johnson & Johnson, 1995). But if this does not solve the problem, students could be required to meet with an adult or older student mentor once a week for further mediation and mentoring until all parties agree that the youths have resolved their gripe, or, at the very least, have been guided back to behavior that will be productive while in school. The model for this extended mentoring service could be the peer mediation program, but instead of mediation being what one mediator in a New York high school called a one-shot deal it can be ongoing and involve mentoring and advisement in addition to mediation. As with adults, students who cannot resolve their differences with one discussion or mediation may be able to do so if asked to sit with mediators several times over the course of a few weeks. Here, of course, the point is to keep the students in school while they resolve their problem.

If mediation and long-term mentoring does not solve the problem, then it is necessary to get students’ parents or guardians involved. Sometimes parents can have more influence than school staff. They can also provide consistency; if a student is threatening to fight another student, the school can provide mediation while the parent is making sure that the student is not attending parties or athletic events where he or she may run into the other student. To do this, a meeting can be convened that would include parents or guardians, the students involved in the problem, and school staff who are involved, as well as a mediator. In the meeting, all individuals involved should discuss the circumstances of the problem and what could be done to potentially solve it. They should work to develop discipline contracts that describe what would constitute appropriate behavior in the future and what forms of discipline will be applied if the student violates the contract. At this first meeting, students should be allowed to discuss the issue and circumstances of the problem and what they feel would be appropriate discipline in the case of a future problem. Punishment should not be given to the student for past misbehavior; this meeting should be a chance for the student to make amends and to start anew. The focus of the possible future actions of discipline should be on what repairs the harm and restores order and peace (Carey, 2001, p. 152). From here, students may be asked, as well, to enter a student check-in program, where students meet with counselors or student support team members to discuss their academic and social progress during the week.

Of course, the amount of time and staff needed to do all this surpasses the resources of many schools. In one elementary school where research was conducted, academic testing had to be done in a coat closet due to lack of space. Such a school is going to have a difficult time finding a place to have even a mediation room. So, in many ways, although moderate in scope, the initiatives still may be unrealistic in some schools. However, this is why violence prevention, conflict resolution, and nearly all forms of school improvement need the buy-in of policy makers, legislators, and administrators who can provide the fiscal and organizational support such initiatives require. If we continue to house students in large schools, in classrooms where there is little personal contact between adults and young people, where discipline in strictly punitive, where there is little time to solve inevitable conflicts, where environments are oppressive and school administrators and teachers are overburdened and stressed, where students are segregated, and where there exist clear lines between those who are valued in school and those who are not, we create an institution that is working against itself and functions only to facilitate failure for some and success for others.

Violence prevention and discipline policy must deal with the context of situations. The nature and history of conflicts, the circumstances of people, what individuals have to lose when criminal, the relationship between those involved, and the meaning that people make of situations, are all part of that context. Prison policy rehashed as school discipline policy does not take into account the context of situations; rather, discretion and understanding are likely to be supplanted by preventative detention and the questionable practice of consistency. Yet even with peoples’ best intentions to understand and take into account the context of situations, and even with the most effective violence prevention programs in place and all the alternatives to zero tolerance policy outlined in this article implemented, success is not guaranteed. In such cases, when all efforts have been made, when the efforts have been long-term and intensive, it may be necessary for some students to continue their educations in another public school in the district (e.g., to separate people who continue to fight) or in an alternative school with the means to work effectively with them. But, the point is, this should be the final option, not the norm. Also, this should be the result of an agreed-upon course of action made by school staff, parents, and students, not the result of an arrest for a slap fight or other such conflict or confrontation. Finally, the point should be to keep students involved in school, in close contact with positive and caring adults, to hold students accountable and to provide safety in school, but also to provide the greatest help to those with the greatest difficulties.

For their excellent feedback on this article, the author wishes to thank Jennifer Emiko Boyden, Bernardine Dohrn, Pedro Noguera, Nan Stein, Johanna Wald, and the anonymous reviewers. Funding for a portion of this research was provided by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention through the Hamilton Fish National Institute for School and Community Violence at The George Washington University and the Violence Prevention Project at Syracuse University. The names of all people and places are pseudonyms.


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RONNIE CASELLA is assistant professor of educational foundations and secondary education at Central Connecticut State University. His research focuses on education and social welfare policy, youth violence, and public uses of security technology. He is the author of "Being Down”: Challenging Violence in Urban Schools and At Zero Tolerance: Punishment, Prevention, and School Violence.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 5, 2003, p. 872-892
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11139, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 7:12:17 PM

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  • Ronnie Casella
    Central Connecticut State University
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    RONNIE CASELLA is assistant professor of educational foundations and secondary education at Central Connecticut State University. His research focuses on education and social welfare policy, youth violence, and public uses of security technology. He is the author of "Being Down’’: Challenging Violence in Urban Schools and At Zero Tolerance: Punishment, Prevention, and School Violence.
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