• By Rebekah Skelton • IDRA Newsletter • March 2024 • Rebekah Skelton photo

Thirty years after the passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 – the landmark bill that promised to bring an end to gun violence on school campuses – schools are no safer now than they were when the law went into effect (Riedman, 2024).

In an attempt to foster school safety through punitive measures, the Act required each state to create and implement a law mandating at least a one-year expulsion of students who brought a weapon to school and referral to a local criminal legal or juvenile legal system. The bill also gave states wide latitude to design and implement policies as they saw fit.

Many states seized the opportunity to “crack down” on student misbehavior by both expanding on the act to encompass less serious offenses – such as shoving, disrupting or skipping classes, and cursing – and operationalizing school policing and punishment systems. This response system became known as “zero tolerance.”

The result is a school system that surveils, polices and criminalizes students at extraordinary rates (Giroux, 2003; Irby & Coney, 2021; Noguera, 2003); functions like a prison system (Johnson & Davis, 2021; Meiners, 2007; Schlesinger & Schmits-Earley, 2021; Wun, 2018); and pushes students out of schools and into the criminal legal system (Christle, et al., 2005; Morris, 2018; Skiba, et al., 2014; Wald & Losen, 2003).

Three decades after the Gun-Free Schools Act’s passage, these policies and practices continue to harm students, particularly students of color, students in families with limited means and students with disabilities.

Law Expands the Carceral State

President Bill Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act into law in March 1994 as fears of violent crime were gripping the nation. Despite evidence that crime in urban areas was actually decreasing (Morgan & Truman, 2020), television news broadcasts filled the airwaves with sensationalized reports of gun violence in urban communities (Beale, 2006).

Seizing on public fears, federal lawmakers passed two of the most significant crime bills in modern history: the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and the Gun-Free Schools Act, which has been described as the Clinton crime bill’s “sister legislation that targeted school-aged children and youth” (Irby & Coney, 2021).

In the following years, studies revealed an increase in suspension and expulsion rates across the country, especially among students of color and students with disabilities (Rafa, 2019).

During the 2022-23 school year in Texas, for instance, schools recorded a total of nearly 1.6 million disciplinary actions, including in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, placement in disciplinary alternative education programs and juvenile justice alternative education programs, and expulsions (TEA, 2023a). Black students, low-income students and students with disabilities were all disproportionately represented among students who were disciplined (TEA, 2023b).

While Black students make up less than 13% of the total student population in Texas, 26% of disciplinary actions were against Black students (TEA, 2023b). Additionally, nearly 81% of disciplinary actions were taken against students identified as economically disadvantaged, though they comprise 63% of the student population (TEA, 2023b).

These data are representative of nationwide trends showing that marginalized student populations have been criminalized for minor, nonviolent offenses and pushed out of school and into the school-to-prison pipeline since the implementation of the Gun-Free Schools Act (Skiba, et al., 2014; Skiba & Knesting, 2001; Wald & Losen, 2003).

In addition to exacerbating the harms of punitive discipline and policing in schools, data show that the Gun-Free Schools Act has not even served its intended purpose of preventing gun violence in schools. In 1994, the year it was signed into law, there were 40 reported incidents of gun violence in K-12 public schools in the United States (Riedman, 2024). In 2023, the last full year for which school data were available, there were 346 reported incidents of gun violence (Riedman, 2024).

By investing in the people, policies and practices that lead to healthy, thriving communities, schools can create welcoming and inclusive learning environments that have no need for zero-tolerance policies.

Policymakers Should Learn from Past Mistakes

Though states slowly moved away from zero-tolerance policies in recent years (Irby & Coney, 2021; Johnson, 2016), lawmakers from across the country, and especially in the U.S. South, have returned to proposing punitive school legislation in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and school shootings.

In the past year, many states drafted policies that would have increased the use of exclusionary discipline in schools, including:

  • SB 245 in Texas would have allowed teachers to remove students from any class after a single act of behavior the teacher deemed unruly, disruptive or abusive.
  • SB 244 in Florida would have allowed teachers to remove “disobedient” and “disrespectful” students from their classrooms.
  • LB 811 in Nebraska would have allowed teachers to physically restrain and remove “disruptive” students from their classrooms.
  • HB 188 in North Carolina would have allowed suspensions for behaviors previously considered minor offenses, such as inappropriate language, dress code violations or minor fights.

While none of these bills were ultimately signed into law, it is clear that elected officials are beginning to revisit failed zero tolerance policies as a response to heightened fears of school violence.

If history is any indicator, the resurgence of zero-tolerance policies will not make schools safer for students. Rather than make the same mistakes they did 30 years ago, lawmakers should fully divest from punitive disciplinary practices, which do not address root causes of violence and harm.

Instead, policymakers should invest in capacity-building solutions that provide support and resources to schools “to help residents build local institutions, support social networks and create social citizenship” (Roberts, 2007).

More schools should implement transformative and restorative justice models, which focus on preventing and repairing harms through inclusive practices that bring students and educators together.

Additionally, gun violence that occurs in any environment, including schools, cannot adequately be addressed without acknowledging the fact that “guns are at the root of gun violence and pose a threat to the physical safety of young people” (Craven, 2022). Firearms are the leading cause of death for young people and took the lives of 4,752 children and teens in 2021 alone (Davis, et al., 2023).

Therefore, it is imperative that “a complete solution for increasing school safety… address the common denominator present in so many instances of violence in our schools and communities” (Duggins-Clay, 2023).

Solutions to school discipline and safety issues must emphasize violence prevention, positive behavior interventions and supports, and community wellness, rather than punishment and exclusion.

By investing in the people, policies and practices that lead to healthy, thriving communities, schools can create welcoming and inclusive learning environments that have no need for zero-tolerance policies.


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Christle, C.K., Jolivette, K., & Nelson, C.M. (2005). Breaking the School to Prison Pipeline: Identifying School Risk and Protective Factors for Youth Delinquency. Exceptionality, 13(2), 69-88.

Craven, M. (June 15, 2022). What Safe Schools Should Look Like for Every Student: A Guide to Building Safe and Welcoming Schools and Rejecting Policies that Hurt Students. IDRA.

Davis, A., Kim, R., & Crifasi, C. (June 2023). U.S. Gun Violence in 2021: An Accounting of a Public Health Crisis. Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

Duggins-Clay, P. (March 27, 2023). HB 3 Offers an Illusion of Safety but Fails to Invest in Real Solutions for Safe and Supportive Schools – IDRA Testimony Against House Bill 3, submitted to the Texas House Select Committee on Youth Health and Safety. IDRA.

Giroux, H. (2003). Racial Injustice and Disposable Youth in the Age of Zero Tolerance. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(4), 553-565.

Irby, D.J., & Coney, K. (2021). The 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act: Its Effects 25 Years Later and How to Undo Them. Peabody Journal of Education, 96(5), 494-507.

Johnson, R.M., & Davis, J.E. (2021). Advancing Racial Equity in Education in the Carceral State. Peabody Journal of Education, 96(5), 491-493.

Johnson, R. (2016). Zero Tolerance Policies Push Students Away – High Attrition Rates of Black Students and Hispanic Students Are Linked to Exclusionary Discipline, Supplemental analysis in 2015-16 IDRA attrition study. IDRA.

Meiners, E.R. (2007). Right to be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies. Routledge.

Morgan, R.E., & Truman, J.L. (2020, September). Criminal Victimization, 2019. U.S. Department of Justice.

Morris, M. (2018). Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. The New Press.

Noguera, P.A. (2003). Schools, Prisons, and Social Implications of Punishment: Rethinking Disciplinary Practices. Theory Into Practice, 42(4), 341-350.

Rafa, A. (January, 2019). The Status of School Discipline in State Policy. Education Commission of the States.

Riedman, D. (2024). How Many School Shootings? All Incidents From 1966-Present. K-12 School Shooting Database.

Roberts, D.E. (2007). Constructing a Criminal Justice System Free of Racial Bias: An Abolitionist Framework. Columbia Human Rights Law Review, 39(1), 261-286.

Schlesinger, T., & Schmits-Earley, M. (2021). Colorblind Policy in a Carceral Geography: Reclaiming Public Education. Youth Justice, 21(1), 33-54.

Skiba, R.J., Arredondo, M.I., & Williams, N.T. (2014). More than a Metaphor: The Contribution of Exclusionary Discipline to a School-to-Prison Pipeline. Equity & Excellence in Education, 47(4), 546-564.

Skiba, R.J., & Knesting, K. (2001). Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice. New Directions for Youth Development, 2001(92), 17-43.

TEA. (2023a). Counts of students and actions by discipline action reasons and discipline action groups (​​PEIMS 2022-2023 data) [Data set]. Texas Education Agency.

TEA. (2023b). Counts of students and discipline actions by discipline action groups (PEIMS 2022-2023 data) [Data set]. Texas Education Agency.

Wald, J., & Losen, D.J. (2003). Defining and Redirecting a School-to-Prison Pipeline. New Directions for Youth Development, 2003(99), 9–15.

Wun, C. (2018). Schools as carceral sites: A Unidirectional War Against Girls of Color. In A.I. Ali & T.L. Buenavista (Eds.), Education at War: The Fight for Students of Color in America’s Public Schools, pp. 206-27.

Rebekah Skelton is an IDRA intern. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at rebekah.skelton@idra.org.

[© 2024, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March edition of the IDRA Newsletter. 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.]