DOJ, Department of Education Issue Guidance on Zero Tolerance Programs

In August 2011, Attorney General Holder and the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, announced a new initiative called the Supportive School discipline Initiative to address the problem of “zero tolerance” policies that impose harsh punishments – such as expulsion – for relatively minor infractions. Recent studies show children punished in this manner are more likely to repeat a grade, not graduate, or become involved in the juvenile justice system. The initiative is a collaboration between the two Departments.

On January 8, 2014, the Department of Justice and Department of Education announced the jointly devised School Discipline Guidance Rollout, addressing the issue of “zero tolerance” policies in the nation’s schools.

Speaking at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, Maryland, Attorney General Eric Holder explained:

As it stands, far too many students across the country are diverted from the path to success by unnecessarily harsh discipline policies and practices that exclude them from school for minor infractions. During critical years that are proven to impact a student’s later chances for success, alarming numbers of young people are suspended, expelled, or even arrested for relatively minor transgressions like school uniform violations, schoolyard fights, or showing “disrespect” by laughing in class.

Too often, so-called “zero-tolerance” policies – however well-intentioned – make students feel unwelcome in their own schools. They disrupt the learning process. And they can have significant and lasting negative effects on the long-term well-being of our young people – increasing their likelihood of future contact with juvenile and criminal justice systems.

The guidance came about as the result of “close and longstanding cooperation between the Departments of Justice and Education, as well as extensive research and collaboration with school leaders, educators, and parents,” Holder added.

The guidance is intended to assist school districts, public elementary and secondary school teachers, as well as administrators “in meeting their obligations under federal law to develop and implement disciplinary policies without discrimination.”

Holder explained that the guidance will “provide useful information for school resource officers, recommendations for evidence-based alternatives to exclusionary discipline, and fresh approaches for monitoring and addressing racial and other disparities. Even more critically, it will offer new tools for educators, policymakers, and parents to promote fair and effective practices that make schools not only safer, but more supportive and inclusive.”

Seeking to avoid potential liability, schools have been hiding behind a wall of resource officers, police, and privatized security guards, explains a Dear Colleague letter sent to school officials around the nation. This does not provide the schools with the legal insulation that they desire. To the contrary: “Schools cannot divest themselves of responsibility for the nondiscriminatory administration of school safety measures and student discipline by relying on school resource officers, school district police officers, contract or private security companies, security guards or other contractors, or law enforcement personnel. To the contrary, the Departments may hold schools accountable for discriminatory actions taken by such parties.”

It is gratifying to see leadership at the federal level beginning to take a serious interest in matters that greatly impact on youths. Far too many have been turned into “offenders” for trivial offenses that at one time may have merited little more than a minor reprimand.

The “school-to-prison pipeline,” as it has been called, is tantamount to a black hole that sucks the very lifeblood out of children, their families, and their communities.

It is time that the educators begin educating, and stop acting as the sentinels for the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Our schools continue to do too little of the former, and too much of the latter.

For a literature review and more information about rthe school-to-prison pipeline, see Zero Tolerance Programs at