Applied Psychology OPUS

The Impact of Zero Tolerance Policies on the Relation Between Educational Attainment and Crime

Nina Passero

In the United States alone, there are over two million incarcerated individuals and the number continues to rise over time (The Sentencing Project, 2014). In fact, the number of people in prison has increased by 500% over the past four decades (The Sentencing Project, 2014). Seventy percent of the incarcerated population does not have a high school degree (Travis, Solomon, & Waul, 2001). This could be due, in part, to the many zero-tolerance policies that have been instituted in schools since the 1990s. Zero-tolerance policies mandate specific consequences to a variety of behaviors, which are intended to be applied without consideration of situational factors, severity of the behavior, or any other factor that could influence the decision to behave poorly (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008; Mental Health America, 2014). Because zero-tolerance policies operate under the assumption that removing students who misbehave from school will discourage their classmates from behaving similarly, often, the consequence handed down is suspension or expulsion (Teske, 2011). However, though the intention of zero tolerance policies is to ensure that the school environment is conducive to learning and is safe for every student, suspension or expulsion could predispose children to criminal behavior in the future (Ford & Schroeder, 2011; Lochner & Moretti, 2004; Maynard, Salas-Wright, & Vaughn, 2015). In fact, between 1991, when zero-tolerance policies were first implemented, and 1998, incarceration rates increased by 47% in the United States (Gainsborough & Maur, 2000), suggesting a possible link between zero-tolerance policies and students’ criminal trajectories (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008; Gainsborough & Maur; 2000).

This link is facilitated by the educational disruption caused by suspension or expulsion, which removes students from the education system and prohibits them from benefiting from the protective effects of education on crime. Therefore, policies and interventions must be developed that keep students in the school environment, while properly addressing youths’ behavioral issues and promoting the wellbeing of youth and their communities.

Zero Tolerance Policies

The concept of “zero-tolerance” found its origin during the 1980s’ “war on drugs,” a State and Federal effort to address the drug problem in the United States (Teske, 2011). The ensuing increase in juvenile arrests for violent crimes that were believed to be associated with drugs in the late 1980s resulted in a societal belief that juveniles were dangerous and that zero-tolerance policies were necessary (Kang-Brown, Trone, Fratello, & Daftary-Kapur, 2013). In an effort to protect against dangerous delinquents in schools, the Gun-Free Schools Act was established in 1994. The Act required schools to expel students who brought a weapon to school for a minimum of a year (Kang-Brown et al., 2013). The public opinion of zero-tolerance policies like the Gun-Free Schools Act became increasingly positive in the wake of the Columbine school shooting in 1999, as more people began to feel that juveniles were capable of large-scale violence (Kang-Brown et al., 2013). By the late 1990s, 79% of US schools had instituted zero-tolerance policies and many had metal detectors and security guards, as well (Kang-Brown et al., 2013).

Zero-tolerance policies were eventually extended to apply to a wide range of behaviors, most of which were less severe than bringing a weapon to school. These included small infractions like smoking, possessing drugs like Midol and aspirin, and general disruption (Dunbar & Villarruel, 2002; Teske, 2011). In other words, these policies were often misapplied to behaviors that posed little threat to school safety (Stader, 2004). As a result, the annual number of suspensions in students nearly doubled from 1974 to 2001, increasing from 1.7 million suspensions to 3.1 million suspensions, respectively (Teske, 2011).

Suspension and expulsion, the typical consequences demanded by zero-tolerance policies, disrupt a student’s education by removing them from school. This disruption can often becomes a more permanent departure from education, in general. In fact, students who are suspended for longer periods of time drop out of school more than those who are suspended for shorter periods (Arcia, 2006). The students who drop out are no longer able to benefit from the protective elements of education, including keeping adolescents off the streets and fostering positive peer relationships, both of which can increase the likelihood that they will commit crime in the future (Ford & Schroeder, 2011; Lochner & Moretti, 2004; Maynard et al., 2015). Despite the potential harm that these policies can lead to, schools still choose to implement them as part of their disciplinary policies, because they are offered federal funding in exchange for compliance (Kang-Brown et al., 2013). Schools rely on this funding in order to provide their students with the resources that they need to succeed academically (US Department of Education, 2012).

It is important to note that these policies do not affect every student in the same way. In fact, zero-tolerance policies have been shown to negatively impact a disproportionate number of students of color (Harvard Civil Rights Project, 2002; Kaufman et al., 2001). One explanation for this is that schools in low-income communities serving minority students are often more reliant on the funding they receive for implanting zero-tolerance policies (Berwick, 2015; National Center for Children in Poverty, 2014; US Department of Education, 2012). Further, African American students are suspended three times more than are white students (Berwick, 2015). For example, although students found in possession of weapons at school belong to all racial categories, students of color are more often suspended for this infraction than are white students (Kaufman et al., 2001; Stader, 2004). In addition, low-income students are five times more likely to quit high school compared to middle-income students, and six times more likely than their high-income peers, in general (Chapman, Laird, Ifill, & KewalRamani, 2011). Furthermore, areas of low economic status also exhibit higher rates of crime than areas of higher economic status (Freeman, 1996; Thornberry & Farnworth, 1982). Low-income communities may experience higher rates of dropping-out and crime compared to more affluent communities because when students fail academically, the likelihood that they will commit crime increases (Farrington, Gallagher, Morley, St. Ledger, & West, 1986). This is partially because these students are not able to benefit from the protective mechanisms built into the school setting (Ford & Schroeder, 2011; Lochner & Moretti, 2004; Maynard et al., 2015).

Educational Attainment as a Protective Factor

Given zero-tolerance policies’ potential influence on a student’s educational trajectory, it is necessary to understand the association between educational attainment and future outcomes, specifically criminal behavior. Past research suggests that, at both the high school and college levels, there is a significant relation between education and criminal history, such that educational attainment acts as a protective factor for criminal behavior (Ford & Schroeder, 2011; Hansen, 2003; Maynard et al., 2015). Students who are enrolled in school may commit less crime because they benefit from the supervision and daily structure provided in the school setting (Lochner & Moretti, 2014). Students also have the opportunity to learn ethical lessons from their teachers and administration (Dunbar & Villarruel, 2002). Additionally, adolescents form friendships at school that are particularly important to their development, as the social support systems created during this developmental period highly influence an individual’s decisions (Farrell, et al., 2004; Ford & Schroeder, 2011; Marrow, 1999). In fact, adolescents are more influenced by their friendships than their family members (Farrell et al., 2004). Therefore, selecting positive peers in school can encourage individuals to conform to positive behavior, and thus, protect against engagement in crime (Farrell et al., 2004; Ford & Schroeder, 2011). Furthermore, avoiding criminal offenses in high school will likely protect against committing crimes in the future, given that individuals who engage in criminal behavior in their youth are likely to continue doing so in adulthood (Lochner & Moretti, 2004; Rutter, Giller, & Hagell, 1998). Therefore, remaining in high school can protect against crime even after graduation. However, failing to do so has severe implications on a student’s educational and criminal outcomes (Lochner & Moretti, 2004).   

Students who are suspended or expelled due to zero-tolerance policies are not able to benefit from these protective elements and are more likely to eventually enter the juvenile justice system (Dunbar & Villarruel, 2002). These students are also more likely to drop out of school completely, as there are often no alternative schools or educational opportunities for students who have been removed from their school for disciplinary reasons (Dunbar & Villarruel, 2002). Given that punitive removal from school increases dropout rates and dropping out of school increases one’s opportunity to commit crime, these students are therefore more at risk for criminal behavior (Arcia, 2006; Lochner & Moretti, 2004).

Students who are expelled or drop out of high school are also less likely to go to college, which is especially protective against engagement in crime (Ford & Schroeder, 2011). Higher educational attainment can increase one’s patience and aversion to risk taking, which lower one’s impulsivity to engage in risky, criminal behavior (Becker & Mulligan, 1997). Also, higher education further promotes adherence to traditional goals, such as getting a high paying job, which would be a challenge to achieve while engaging in criminal activity (Compton, Gfroerer, Conway, & Finger, 2014; Ford & Schroeder, 2011). Students who graduate from college can eventually attain higher paying jobs and thus are less likely to commit crime and risk incarceration, as they would lose more money during their unpaid time in prison compared to a person with a lower paid position (Lochner & Moretti, 2004). In fact, people with lower paying jobs and less education often serve the longest sentences if they are incarcerated (Kling, 2006). Ultimately, any level of educational attainment is protective against crime, which is why it is important to keep students in school as long as possible (Ford & Schroeder, 2011; Maynard et al., 2015).

Proposal for Interventions

Given that education plays a vital role in protecting against criminal behavior and zero-tolerance policies disrupt a student’s educational trajectory, it is clear that these policies are not effective in improving a student’s future life outcomes (Dunbar & Villarruel, 2002). Not only do these policies unproductively and punitively discipline students, they destroy the chance for students to learn valuable moral lessons and create relationships with teachers (Dunbar & Villarruel, 2002; Essex, 2000). Therefore, new policies must be developed in order to both foster positive student outcomes and lessen the likelihood of criminal behavior and future incarceration. Expelling and suspending students who misbehave at school feeds directly into the school-to-prison pipeline, which refers to the policies, like zero-tolerance, that remove at-risk children from school and increase their chances of becoming involved with the criminal justice system (American Civil Liberties Union, 2016).

A more effective and rehabilitative consequence for a student who misbehaves would be mandating regular sessions with a school counselor or social worker. It is important to provide a misbehaving student with assistance in developing problem solving and social skills (Boccanfuso & Kuhfeld, 2011). Teaching students how to manage their anger and impulses, as well as listen to others and resolve conflicts responsibly better addresses the origin of the dangerous behavior than does simply forcing them out of school (Boccanfuso & Kuhfeld, 2011; Essex, 2000). For example, a program called Connect with Kids, which is implemented in schools across the country, establishes a curriculum in the classroom that emphasizes positive social interactions and behavior (Boccanfuso & Kuhfeld, 2011). The program uses activities like storytelling, games, and discussions to teach students positive social skills and has been effective in improving students’ self control and tolerance of others (Boccanfuso & Kuhfeld, 2011). This program is intended to target students before they have misbehaved in order to prevent further problematic behavior in the future.

However, in order to also positively impact students who are involved with delinquent behaviors already, a more comprehensive program is necessary. Over 13,000 schools in the United States have adopted the School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS) program, which employs a three-tiered strategy to assist students at all levels of misbehavior. The first tier is targeted at all students and teaches them behavioral expectations, while rewarding positive behaviors and collecting data for future implementations of the program. The second tier targets students who are at-risk for misbehavior by implementing interventions that are specific to the school’s behavioral standards. The third and final tier targets students who are exhibiting more serious behavioral issues and who would typically be removed from the school if zero-tolerance policies were in place (Boccanfuso & Kuhfeld, 2011). These students are given interventions that are individualized to their situation and often include participation from a student’s family or community (Boccanfuso & Kuhfeld, 2011). Including parents in the intervention process is an important step, as it provides the student with more all-encompassing supervision and support, both in and out of the school environment (Essex, 2000). This program is useful because it does not use a “one size fits all” punishment without considering the context of the misbehavior (Essex, 2000). Instead, it acknowledges that every student has a different set of needs and addresses them accordingly.

While there are some programs, like the aforementioned, that offer more effective alternatives to zero-tolerance policies, they are not widely known amongst all schools and administrators. Therefore, these alternative programs are not accessible to every school. It is important for SWPBIS to be better advertised because of its potential to vastly improve the school environment and benefit both teachers and students.


Given the steady growth of the United States prison population, it is vital to consider a variety of contributing factors and potential solutions (The Sentencing Project, 2014). Zero-tolerance policies likely contribute to this problem by diverting students from the school system through suspension or expulsion for behaviors deemed problematic (Teske, 2011). This diversion can potentially lead to a permanent withdrawal from education, thereby limiting a student’s access to the protective elements of education. Without the positive influence provided by the school system, a student can become more likely to engage in criminal behavior, which harms both the community’s safety and the student’s wellbeing (Ford & Schroeder, 2011; Lochner & Moretti, 2004; Maynard, Salas-Wright, & Vaughn, 2015). Therefore, it is vital to keep students in school as long as possible and develop policies that address their misbehavior, rather than remove them from school entirely.

In general, future research should evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention programs that already exist, as well as their shortcomings. Future research should also be conducted in schools to determine whether disciplinary action is being applied fairly by school staff. Additionally, policies should be implemented that require public schools to use alternative interventions, rather than zero-tolerance punishments, in order to make students, teachers, and society safer from criminal behavior. Furthermore, teachers need appropriate training to understand how to successfully manage and resolve classroom conflict so they do not need to resort to suspension or expulsion. Ultimately, schools should adopt comprehensive and flexible disciplinary policies that keep students in school and address the underlying problems that motivate their misbehavior.


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