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Zero-Tolerance School Discipline Policies Perpetuate Inequality and Promote Failure

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As communities across the country search for effective solutions to address poverty and racial inequality, reforming overly harsh school discipline practices should be at the top of the agenda.  
The impact of suspensions and expulsions on a child۪s long-term success are clear: Research shows that the likelihood a high school student will drop out doubles with their first suspension, in large part because they fall behind in class and become discouraged and disengaged. Young people who don۪t finish high school are eight times more likely to go to prison than students who graduate, perpetuating a lifetime of financial and personal struggle. (Even for those who don۪t end up in prison, the cost of not finishing school is significant. High school dropouts earn 130 percent less over their lifetimes than those with a bachelor۪s degree.)  

In recent years, much attention has focused on the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which starts with excessive use of zero-tolerance discipline practices at school. Data consistently show that students of color are disproportionately suspended, expelled, and arrested.  Most often, this is because they attend schools that rely heavily on exclusionary discipline approaches in the absence of the other resources that help children succeed.

Students of color, for example, are three times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. Black boys, with a 20 percent suspension rate, are more likely to be pushed out of school than any peer group.  But black girls aren۪t far behind with a suspension rate of 12 percent, compared with 2 percent for white girls and 6 percent for white boys. And this disparity is not because black students misbehave more. National research shows they typically receive harsher punishments than their white peers for the same offense.
These alarming statistics have caught the attention of government and education leaders. Most recently, superintendents from 40 urban school districts pledged to address the damaging impact of suspensions and expulsions on boys and young men of color as part of President Obama۪s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Earlier this year, the Obama administration released federal guidelines that advised schools to replace zero-tolerance discipline policies with more effective and positive discipline strategies. The administration warned that continuing disparities in suspension and expulsion could be a civil rights violation and result in a federal investigation.

School districts across the country have shown that revising codes of conduct to replace zero-tolerance discipline not only keeps children in school, but creates safer and calmer environments for learning. Alternative approaches like restorative practices, a process that equips educators and students to resolve conflicts collaboratively, lessen the likelihood that minor misbehaviors like talking back to a teacher or violating the school dress code will result in automatic suspension.

A few states and school districts set a good example:

Baltimore reduced its dropout rate by more than half in just a few years after it revised the school discipline code to prevent suspensions for minor offenses, added school counselors and after-school programs and instituted a range of academic interventions.

Colorado reduced out-of-school suspensions by 10 percent and slashed expulsions by 25 percent during 2012-13just one year after the state enacted legislation mandating that all school districts rewrite their discipline codes to include alternative approaches such as restorative practices and to eliminate automatic expulsions for all offenses other than bringing firearms to school.  

In California, expulsions decreased 12.3 percent and suspensions dropped 14.1 percent between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years in the wake of district-level changes enacted throughout the state. Suspensions in the Los Angeles Unified School District alone dropped 37.5 percent after the discipline policy was revised to discourage suspension for minor offenses.

Reforming school discipline policy and practice can be challenging, particularly at a time when education systems are being asked to do more with less. But we must face this challenge head on, acknowledge where our best efforts have unintentionally caused harm, and work together to find better ways to help all children succeed.

Earlier this year, the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center۪s School Discipline Consensus Report laid out a roadmap for action that states and school districts can follow. At the top of its list of more than 60 recommendations, CSG urged schools to suspend or expel students only as a last resort after alternative interventions such as peer conferences and restorative practices had been exhausted.

Additionally, CSG called on school systems and law enforcement agencies to create detailed memorandums of understanding to guide the placement of law enforcement officers on campus. Too often, school police officers are drawn into addressing student behavior that would be better handled by the school principal, rather than a trip to the police station and ultimately, court.

Schools should be places where all children can learn and thrive. Young people need the opportunity to learn from their mistakes safely and constructively. The continued use of zero-tolerance discipline practices perpetuates an intolerable status quo of dropout and failure. Our children deserve better.  

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Kavitha Mediratta is head of racial-equity programs at The Atlantic Philanthropies. Follow her on Twitter at

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