Zero-tolerance policies fall disproportionately on racial/ethnic minority youth, particularly African American youth. Across the K-12 spectrum, the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force (2008) found that African American students were about three times more likely to be suspended from school than whites, whereas Latinos and Native Americans were about 1.5 times more likely to be suspended than whites. Even after controlling for structural factors, such as poverty, or individual characteristics, such as academic achievement or the severity of school infractions, racial differences in suspensions and expulsions persist (Gregory, Skiba, and Noguera, 2010). More recently, the Department of Education released data based on approximately 85 percent of the nation’s students that showed that African American students are more than 3.5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers (U.S Department of Education, 2012), and more than 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African American. Texas data also confirmed the large numbers of students being suspended and expelled (15 percent of nearly 1 million students) and that only a small percentage (3 percent) of these actions were in response to conduct for which state law mandated suspensions and expulsion; the rest were made at the discretion of school officials primarily in response to violations of local schools’ conduct codes (Fabelo et al., 2012). The study also showed that suspension or expulsion greatly increased a student’s risk of being held back a grade, dropping out, or landing in the juvenile justice system (Fabelo et al., 2012).
How effective are zero-tolerance policies in reducing school misbehavior and providing a safer learning environment for students? The American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force (2008) reviewed the evidence and concluded that zero-tolerance policies were not effective. Mandated punishment for particular offenses—a hallmark of zero tolerance—did not appear to increase the consistency of school discipline policies. There was no evidence that zero tolerance created a school climate more conducive to learning for students who remain, and zero tolerance did not have the intended deterrence effect on individual student behavior.
Zero tolerance as a philosophy of school discipline creates a discipline gap that closely mirrors the racial achievement gap. Suspensions and expulsions increase the disconnection between youth and their schools, causing them to be less invested in school rules and coursework and less motivated to achieve academic success. The disproportionate suspension and expulsion of minority students raises issues of fundamental fairness and increases the likelihood that they will be targets of school-based arrests for even relatively minor offenses. For these reasons, school reformers have called for restoring discipline responsibilities to educators, decreasing reliance on school resource officers, and mandating alternatives to harsh discipline (New York Civil Liberties Union and Annenberg Institute for School Reform, 2009).