Racial Disparities Related to School Zero Tolerance Policies

On November 6, 2013 Applied Research Center (ARC) was rebranded as Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation. The content on this page was published on the ARC website prior to the rebrand.
April 13, 2006

The Applied Research Center (ARC), a non-profit, independent research and public policy institute that focuses on issues of race and social change, has recently conducted a national study in collaboration with a variety of community-based organizations around the country. The study involved collecting data on a variety of key indicators of performance and equity for a dozen school districts geographically distributed throughout the country. Some of our findings related to school discipline and zero tolerance include:

  • In every school district studied, there are significant racial disparities in student suspensions and expulsions.
  • By increasing school expulsions, zero tolerance policies have a disproportionate adverse impact on students of color.
  • Zero tolerance policies are being implemented in unfair and unreasonable ways.
  • Zero tolerance policies curtail the expression of reasonable professional judgment by school educators and administrators, and limit students' and parents' right to due process.
  • There is a huge reporting deficiency in disciplinary actions in U.S. public schools.

Based on the findings from our research, we recommend the following:

  • The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights should initiate a full investigation of racial disparities related to zero tolerance policies. Current anecdotal and statistical evidence, though incomplete, provides ample indicators of racial inequality to warrant further study.
  • The Commission should support comprehensive, consistent, and centralized school discipline reporting. The data can then be used for sound research and policy-making purposes.
  • School districts and states should be encouraged, through federal policies and funding incentives, to set and meet measurable, quantitative goals to reduce the overall numbers of suspensions and expulsions, and to eliminate racial disparities.
  • The Commission should recommend the elimination of zero tolerance policies in favor of a more flexible approach to serious discipline problems.
  • The Commission should encourage Congress to explore more preventative practices, instead of punitive policies, to minimize school disciplinary problems. Measures that can prevent disciplinary problems include:

> Providing a respectful learning environment with challenging and culturally appropriate curricula.

> Providing professional development to teachers and administrators to expand their repertoire of practices to accommodate different styles and paces of learning;

> Providing adequate classroom resources and facilities, with reduced class sizes; and

> Providing the full expectation and opportunity for all students to excel and succeed.

Ultimately, mutual respect and excitement about teaching and learning are the most effective discipline measures available to any teacher or school. In summary, we urge you to investigate and oppose policies and conditions that aggravate existing inequalities experienced by some students, and to support policies that truly promote equity, excellence and opportunity for all students.