By Makiah Lyons • Knowledge is Power • February 24, 2023 •Makiah Lyons photo

This month marks the 33rd anniversary of the introduction of the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 to the U.S. Senate. This particular legislation and others closely related to the “Tough on Crime” initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s ushered in a new era of school policy marked by punitive punishment, and in particular the implementation of zero-tolerance policies. Lawmakers intended the Gun-Free School Zones Act to reduce gun violence in school zones, but the law was later overturned in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1994, Congress introduced the Gun-Free Schools Act, requiring states to establish laws providing for the expulsion of a student for a minimum of a year for bringing a weapon to school. The act also instructed schools to refer students to juvenile or criminal legal systems for violating this law.

In 1995, Texas revised the state’s education law code, including the school discipline code to establish zero-tolerance for specified infractions. In the same year, Georgia enacted a law requiring each local board of education to establish zero-tolerance policies.

Policymakers designed zero-tolerance policies to create a consistent approach to misbehavior that threatened school safety. These policies mirrored the criminal legal system’s “Tough on Crime” movement away from rehabilitative laws and toward increasingly punitive zero-tolerance policies that set mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses or certain crimes involving weapons.

Soon, however, schools expanded and applied zero-tolerance policies to less serious and more subjective offenses, growing increasingly vague. As a result, schools used more exclusionary practices to address minor infractions like class disruption, tardiness and dress code violations.

Educators also differentially and inconsistently applied these policies. Data from 1991 to 2005 demonstrated that Black students were more likely to be subject to harsher disciplinary decisions, like suspension or expulsion, for less serious and more subjective crime than white students.

Schools with a large percentage of Black students are more likely to use zero-tolerance policies and punitive punishment, and Black students are more likely to be enrolled in a school with a higher degree of security measures. High security measures including, school police, metal detectors, and drug-sniffing dogs, are associated with not only increased suspension rates but more pronounced Black-white disparities within those suspensions.

Zero-tolerance policies have been widely documented as ineffective, undermining student achievement and making schools more dangerous. The frequent use of exclusionary discipline thwarts both school and community safety, encouraging students to disengage from their school community and educational process.

Research consistently shows that schools that suspend and expel students at high rates do not see gains in achievement but have higher dropout rates and incidences of criminal legal system involvement among their students.

These policies disproportionately push Black and Latino students out of schools and into the criminal justice system.

Over the past decade, organizations and advocates have fought to end policies that have harmed generations of students and replace them with restorative practices that encourage safer schools.

As we celebrate Black History Month and honor the past, we should use those lessons as a reminder to fight for a better and brighter future for ourselves and young people.

[©2023, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 24, 2023, edition of Knowledge is Power by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]