Back view of a little boy wearing a backpack walking to school

Zeroing In on “Zero Tolerance” School Discipline Laws

By Alexandra Hess

Exclusionary school discipline (ESD) policies, also known as Zero Tolerance policies, enforce disciplinary measures like suspension, expulsion, or law enforcement referral to address particular student behaviors.

Though it began as part of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which mandated one-year expulsion for possessing a firearm at school, ESD became more widely adopted over time. Now, the policies apply nationwide to a broad range of behaviors — from damaging property and fighting, to possessing a cell phone or tobacco, as well as behaviors described by subjective terms often undefined in the law, like willful defiance, obscenity, or profanity.

Today, the majority of US schools rely on the ESD model, but this may be problematic. ESD policies are linked to low grades and achievement, low attendance, and high dropout rates, which place students at risk for reduced educational attainment, something strongly correlated with shorter life expectancy, fewer earnings, and poor health of children. In addition, ESD disproportionately affects students of color and students with disabilities, with black students comprising 15 percent of the student population but one-third of overall expulsions. Students with disabilities make up 12 percent of enrollment but 28 percent of referrals to law enforcement. ESD also significantly contributes to involvement with the criminal justice system—a phenomenon known as the school to prison pipeline.

In spite of the evidence that ESD policies may do more harm than good, many state laws are relatively unchanged since 2008, according to new data published by the Policy Surveillance Program at the Temple University Center for Public Health Law Research.

The new data captures 11 years of state laws governing school discipline policies and practices (January 1, 2008 to December 1, 2018):

  • Half of all states – 26 in 2018 – permit schools to expel a student for “willful defiance.” This number increased slightly from 25 states in 2008.
  • As of December 1, 2018, 10 states required out-of-school suspension for possession of a weapon; that number has increased by two, up from eight states in 2008.
  • The number of states requiring law enforcement referrals for physical violence has also increased from 16 in 2008 to 19 in 2018.

While ESD has remained the cornerstone of school discipline laws nationwide, several states have changed or eliminated ESD in favor of alternative disciplinary measures that may have more positive impacts on student behavior and future outcomes. Ten states required schools to use alternatives in 2008; this increased to 13 states as of December 1, 2018. States that encouraged the use of alternatives increased from four in 2008 to eight in 2018.

These alternative models include Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which has been shown to reduce rates of suspension and has gained traction in a number of state laws. The PBIS framework implements social, emotional, and behavioral supports rather than focusing on punitive measures. Only three states in 2008 incorporated PBIS into their disciplinary laws, but this increased to nine in 2018, according to the new data on

More states also now require schools to consider the individual circumstances of a student’s violation before imposing a suspension or expulsion. Illinois, for example, limits the reasons a student may be suspended for longer than three days, and only after all other alternative forms of discipline have been exhausted. Overall, the dataset depicts a slow increase in the use of alternatives. The continued transition away from ESD will depend on evidence in favor of alternatives that improve student outcomes and foster positive school climates.

This new resource, which was supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with ChangeLab Solutions, may be useful for researchers, advocates, school administrators, and others seeking to understand these policies and their impact on students.

Visit to explore the data and learn more.

Alexandra Hess, Esq., is a Law and Policy Analyst at the Center for Public Health Law Research.

Temple University Center for Public Health Law Research

Based at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, the Center for Public Health Law Research supports the widespread adoption of scientific tools and methods for mapping and evaluating the impact of law on health. It works by developing and teaching public health law research and legal epidemiology methods (including legal mapping and policy surveillance); researching laws and policies that improve health, increase access to care, and create or remove barriers to health (e.g., laws or policies that create or remove inequity); and communicating and disseminating evidence to facilitate innovation.

One thought to “Zeroing In on “Zero Tolerance” School Discipline Laws”

  1. Decades ago when teaching correlation, I regularly reminded students that a correlation is NOT evidence of a causal relationship. These ESD laws would likely not result in compounding student problems if parents responded appropriately. Sending a kid home from school, suspended, etc. is intended to get parents’ attention that Dick or Jane are encourageable bad actors. Translated: You need to start parenting more intensely. Rarely are little tikes as suggested by the photo on this page being suspended for telling their teachers in front of classmates to “F-ck off!” or punch a classmate or teacher, pull a knife, etc.

    An alternative interpretation of these data would be that kids with broken homes, bad parenting, mental health issues, learning disabilities, etc. are having bad outcomes over time because of their impairment or home situation. All ESD does is highlight what is too often an insoluble problem. It is difficult to see how ESD laws are at fault here. Reintegrating a highly disruptive student handicaps both the teacher and their class. Interventions to expulsion are worth trying, and might help a few kids receive effective intervention – but ESD is still a necessary policy when alternatives are exhausted.

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