Support for ‘Zero Tolerance’ policies in schools linked to higher suspension rates, lower feelings of safety

When a Maryland elementary school suspended a 7-year-old student for biting a breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun in 2013, the punishment received national media attention and sparked concern about the potential for zero tolerance policies to be excessively harsh as a discipline approach.

A recent study at the University of Missouri, led by Francis Huang, an associate professor in the MU College of Education and Human Development, and Dewey Cornell, professor at the University of Virginia, sought to better understand the level of support among teachers for zero tolerance policies in schools. Researchers analyzed data from a school climate survey with responses from more than 10,000 teachers and 100,000 students from nearly every middle school in Virginia.

Despite widespread criticism of zero tolerance policies by education authorities, the research team found that nearly three-fourths of surveyed teachers supported the use of ‘zero tolerance’ as an effective discipline practice. Contrary to the goals of zero tolerance policies, teacher support for ‘zero tolerance’ was linked to higher rates of out-of-school suspensions as well as lower feelings of safety at school among both students and teachers.

Although zero tolerance policies in schools have been around since the 1990s, few studies have investigated the relationship of zero tolerance policies, school disciplinary practices and school safety. Since ‘zero tolerance’ is a discipline philosophy that may not always be specifically spelled out in official writing, it can be difficult to study its effectiveness, so the MU study sought to learn how much teacher support there is for the philosophy. Huang said the original idea behind implementing zero tolerance policies was to deter student misbehavior by making it clear that certain actions would automatically be met with swift and severe punishment.

“Zero tolerance policies were originally meant for gun and illegal drug-related infractions that were intended to make schools safer,” Huang said. “However, there has been very little research on whether these policies have actually worked, namely improving student discipline and increasing feelings of safety while at school.”


This is a photo of Francis Huang.

Francis Huang is an associate professor in the MU College of Education and Human Development.

Huang added the findings are important as more schools consider alternative disciplinary practices, such as using ‘threat assessments’ and restorative practices. Support for ‘zero tolerance’ may undermine the acceptance and adoption of disciplinary reforms.

“Threat assessment is a process designed to help prevent violence with an emphasis on addressing issues that lead to threatening behavior,” Huang said. “Restorative practices involve strengthening relationships, resolving conflicts in a constructive manner, and holding individuals accountable for their actions. These alternative approaches may be more effective at promoting a safe and positive school climate.”

“Teacher support for zero tolerance is associated with higher suspension rates and lower feelings of safety” was recently published in School Psychology Review. Funding for the study was provided by the U.S. Department of Justice.

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