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“Zero Consequences” vs. “Zero Tolerance”: The Function of False Binaries in School Discipline Policy Debates

Dr. Rachel Lissy

Recently both PBS and Chalkbeat reported on efforts in more than half a dozen states to push for harsher school discipline policies.  Proposed laws in Florida, North Carolina and Texas would expand the right of teachers to remove and suspend students for “disrespectful,” “disorderly” or “disobedient” behaviors including dress code violations or talking back.  In Arizona and Nevada proposed laws would allow schools to suspend elementary aged children as young as 5 years old. In Kentucky, a bill recently signed into law by the state's Democratic governor removes barriers to expelling students and offers virtual education as an acceptable alternative for removed pupils. 

Many of these bills are a direct rollback of reforms from the last decade designed to limit suspensions, reduce criminalizing policies and address racialized disproportionality in punishment. These disciplinary reforms were the result of sustained grassroots organizing by community groups bolstered by research that demonstrated that suspensions and expulsions were harmful, ineffective and contributed to the “school-to-prison-pipeline.”  In 2014 the Obama administration added its support to these efforts by issuing guidance that encouraged districts to reduce suspensions and required them to disaggregate data by race, address disproportionality and implement alternatives though behavioral supports, guidance and restorative justice.   In calling for a return to harsher discipline associated with zero tolerance and the “school-to-prison pipeline” lawmakers in Nebraska, Texas and Florida have critiqued this guidance as lenient and permissive.  They have argued that these disciplinary reforms have led to increased violence, undermined teachers’ authority, left educators powerless to remove dangerous students and created a general climate of disorder and disrespect.  

This debate about how best to respond to student behavior and achieve order in schools is not a new one.  For as long as there have been public schools in America there have been debates about how best to respond to “disorderly,” “unruly,” “delinquent,” and “incorrigible” student behavior.  Debates about shaping, influencing and controlling behavior emerged alongside America’s earliest public schools. Indeed, for the founders of American public schools, shaping behavior was a primary concern--more important than any discussions about curriculum or academic skills.  Historically, this debate has broken down along consistent fault lines.  On one side, advocates for punitive approaches argue for firm responses based in the belief that teachers, by virtue of their age and position, are imbued with hierarchical and moral authority.  This authority empowers them to enforce rules and foster compliance through a combination of sanctions, rewards and shame.  Punitive responses, they argue, are effective and necessary because students need punishment (or the threat of punishment) to deter their unruly behavior. By contrast, critics of this approach argue that children are vulnerable and therefore need guidance, nurturing, understanding and above all trusting relationships to curtail impulses and develop the skills needed for democratic citizenship.   Rather than drawing on Biblical precepts against “sparing the rod” or traditional notions of authority and obedience, proponents of relational approaches draw upon research and expertise from the fields of psychology, education and child development.   Critics of this relational approach argue that treating students as fragile or vulnerable only coddles them and exacerbates disorder by creating a permissive society lacking moral authority. 

For more than a decade I have worked in schools providing professional development around issues of discipline, school culture, behavior intervention and classroom management.  I encounter these longstanding debates about student discipline constantly in workshops and coaching with teachers.  I explore these debates, because I cannot avoid them--they are repeated, predictably, everywhere I go.  Whether the topic is individualized accommodations, de-escalation techniques or restorative approaches, the push back is familiar: “Aren’t we rewarding bad behavior?” “He disrupts my lesson and then gets offered a snack?” “Kids do whatever they want because there are no consequences.”  These comments are typically expressed more with a sense of hopelessness and frustration than with anger or vindictiveness.  

These debates recur and persist, in part, because creating safe, restorative and enriching school communities is incredibly complicated.  It takes time, attention and space for reflection, connection and planning--all of which are scarce resources, especially in under-funded, segregated and neglected schools serving children under the thumb of poverty and systemic racism. We expect teachers to make it all work nonetheless--to soften the hard edges of a brutal social order. Even our advice captures the contradictory roles we want teachers to play. Teachers are told to be “warm demanders”  or “no-nonsense nurturers” who use “tough love.”  Simplified debates shaped by false binaries between “soft” and “hard” approaches obscure the nuance and complexity of this work.   They recur and persist for this reason as well.  High expectations and rigor are not actually the opposite of nurturance and support.  Restorative approaches focused on harm and relationships can provide more meaningful accountability than a suspension or detention. 

Indeed, in the past half century, while zero tolerance approaches have often been cloaked in the language of accountability and punishment, they more accurately represent something distinct from these debates--a repudiation of schools in loco parentis responsibilities.  The notion that schools and social institutions more broadly should act in loco parentis shaped disciplinary policy during the late 19th and early 20th century.   School officials were expected to act as surrogate parents and disciplinary policies empowered social institutions to play an intervening role between children and their families. This power was not entirely benevolent--it was used to justify the use of corporal punishment and the paternalistic and xenophobic separation of children from their supposedly immoral, foreign born parents.  Nonetheless, policies like suspensions and expulsions or relying on police, were seen as anathema to this approach as they removed students from the purview and supervision of social welfare and educational systems. For this reason, in 1930 the Superintendent of New York City schools, responding to concerns about school disorder, referred to suspensions as “awful measures” with the Board of Education President adding “if occasionally a child is found to lack character it is the business of schools to get to work to provide it.”  

Exclusionary discipline policies suggest instead that schools are not responsible for educating certain children.  Accordingly, access to education is a privilege--contingent upon meeting certain social norms--not a right that all children should benefit from. It’s noteworthy then, that the rise in “zero tolerance” policies coincides not only with the “school to prison pipeline” but also with the rise in school choice and privatization movements.  If education is a commodity, and students are customers, schools have no obligation to educate those that are “not the right fit.” They can be sent back into the “marketplace” to be “served” somewhere else. Suspensions and expulsions are often described as “teaching kids a lesson” or “sending a message,” but this pedagogical language obscures the fact that you stop teaching children the moment you abandon them.  Persistently suspending or expelling students from schools is not accountability. Any parent understands the difference between sending your child to their room and kicking them out of the house altogether. One sets a limit, the other is neglect.

In my workshops, when I share examples of disciplinary debates from past reports and articles with teachers they often comment that “history repeats itself” or “the more things change the more they stay the same.” But history provides an opportunity to go beyond a defeatist shrug of recognition.  History allows us to explore factors and forces which may be harder to see from our narrow perspective in the present moment. This is especially important in moments of social change or upheaval when concerns about school disorder are distorted and amplified to serve particular interests.  With proposed rollbacks and efforts to defund approaches rooted in social emotional learning or restorative justice we find ourselves in just such a contentious moment. It’s important for educators to distinguish between the complex pedagogical discussions about discipline that are an essential part of their practice and the way these debates are simplified, politicized and leveraged to undermine support for public schooling, neglect children and maintain an unequal and racialized social order. Depicting public schools as disorderly and students as incipient or actual criminals legitimizes disinvestment, segregation, privatization and criminalization.  

In a series of forthcoming posts over the next few months, I will share patterns and dynamics drawn from research into the history of discipline policy in New York City with a focus on shifts in formal policy that emerged in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. In doing so, my goal is to highlight how discipline reforms are often driven by politics and not pedagogy. In the process, race-blind rhetoric and concerns about “safety” are used to obscure policies designed with highly racialized impacts and intentions.  Finally, I will look at how teachers come to participate in these practices and advocate for lowering barriers for removal. While this participation is justified via claims about what’s in the best interests of children, history shows that teachers' interests also play a role because removing challenging pupils functions as a way of improving their working conditions.  Ultimately, these historical perspectives will provide a lens for understanding contemporary patterns, challenging false binaries and motivating the hard work needed to create change.


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 Carl F. Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860

(Macmillan, 1983).

 "O'Shea Won't Oust Communist Pupils," New York Times, March 14, 1930.

Rachel Lissy, Ph.D., is a historian, consultant and capacity builder who work with educators to transform discipline policy and address racial inequity. This series draws from her personal experience as well as her dissertation, "From Rehabilitation to Punishment: The Institutionalization of Suspension Policies in Post-WWII New York City Schools."