How Zero Tolerance Blurred the Lines Between Schools and Criminal Justice

Over the last 30 years, schools across the country have enacted tough new discipline policies. Some of those schools say they went too far.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as crime rates started to rise, schools across the country began to crack down on violence, disorder and weapons in the classroom. A new “get tough” approach to discipline took hold that increasingly relied on swift punishment, suspensions and arrests.

By the mid-90s, that approach to discipline had been given a name: “zero tolerance.” In 1994, the federal government called for zero tolerance, or mandatory one-year expulsion, for anyone who brought a gun to school. But many schools went even further, using a zero tolerance approach for other weapons, drugs and all sorts of misbehavior. By 2011, more than three million students a year were being suspended and nearly 250,000 were being referred to the police by their schools. And those harsh punishments were much more likely to impact minorities and students with disabilities.

Related: The Unintended Consequences of Taking a Hard Line on School Discipline by Clyde Haberman

For teachers
  • Read transcript
  • Producer: Scott Michels
  • Editor: Anne Checler
  • Associate Producer: Meral Agish
  • Reporter: Susan Ferriss

For Educators


This 11-minute video shows students why public schools in the 1980s and 1990s came to adopt policies based upon the doctrine of “zero tolerance,” a “law and order” approach to school discipline that included widespread use of arrests and expulsions. Following this unprecedented partnership between schools and the police, many critics are using the policy’s racially unequal outcomes to justify a less strict and punitive approach. Useful for any lesson focused on racial inequality in the educational or criminal justice system, or for any lesson exploring the swing of the pendulum towards “tough on crime” policies in the 1980s and 1990s, the video helps students see the connection between modern debates over the “school-to-prison pipeline” and the politics and culture of the 1980s and 1990s.

Background reading

In the 1980s, reports that public schools were becoming places of fear and violence focused national attention on Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J.

There, a feisty principal named Joe Clark was imposing a tough, new approach to discipline, suspending kids without hall passes, threatening drug dealers with a baseball bat, and even expelling some 300 students considered hardcore trouble makers.

Clark’s flair and effectiveness made him nationally known, and his reputation grew after a TV movie based on his life – Lean on Me, starring Morgan Freeman – was released, and spread the gospel that tough discipline worked.

By 1994, with reports of gun violence in schools increasing, a new federal law added clout to Clark’s approach by mandating that any states receiving federal education money expel students found bringing a weapon to class.

That policy became known as “zero tolerance,” and it was soon extended to cover students who had committed minor infractions, like kicking over a trash can.

By 2011, schools across the nation were suspending up to 3 million students a year. Local police had become a continuing presence in many schools, and they were handling traditional discipline problems. Tens of thousands of students wound up arrested.

A disproportionate number of those students were either African-American, Latino, or disabled, mentally or physically.

The disastrous unintended consequences of “zero tolerance” eventually led the federal Department of Education to issue new guidelines in 2014. They aimed to prevent students who committed routine infractions from landing at a police station.

Lesson Plan 1: The Clinton Presidency: “Zero Tolerance”

Students will learn the social and political forces that led schools to adopt “zero tolerance” discipline policies in the 1980s and 1990s, and the racially unequal consequences of these policies today.

  • What political and cultural forces caused the U.S. government and local schools to adopt “zero tolerance” policies in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Why “zero tolerance” policies have created racially unequal outcomes, and why some policy makers and school administrators have come to advocate alternative approaches to school discipline.
  • How the doctrine of “zero tolerance” reflects the politics and culture of the 1980s and 1990s.
  • How educational policy is related to the criminal justice system and to racial equality.
Essential questions
  • Why did the federal government and local schools move towards “zero tolerance” policies?
  • What kinds of policies and rules were created as part of the “zero tolerance” approach?
  • How did the “zero tolerance” rules affect students?
  • In recent years, why have some school districts and policymakers chosen to move away from the “zero tolerance” approach?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
    • D2.Civ.13.9-12.Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 9.5: Migration and Immigration

      Skill 5.B: Explain how a historical development relates to another historical development.

      Theme 7: American and Regional Culture (ARC);