Implementation of zero-tolerance policies receives mixed reviews from parents as well.
Parents are conflicted between desiring stronger disciplinary measures for the safety of their own
children, and on the other hand, being outraged when they believe a student has been deprived of
a right to an education. This dichotomy is at the heart of school disciplinary issues. It is the right
and duty of school officials to maintain the safety of the school and its students, however current
policies sometimes result in undue and harsh punishments.
Social science research on adolescent brain development can help schools identify high-risk offenders and tailor interventions more specifically to them. High-risk offenders require
intensive interventions to reduce criminality, but studies have also shown that intensive
intervention strategies can increase delinquency for low-risk offenders. Separating youth
according to risk of recidivism is a key component of treatment that should not be overlooked.
Doing so will also reduce the risk of imposing unduly harsh punishments on students who commit
minor offenses. This in turn reduces the risk of reoffending. This article will explore new
approaches to school discipline in light of emerging research on adolescent brain development,
which establish more realistic expectations of youth offenders.
II. REFORM OF EXISTING POLICIES
Zero tolerance policies were reasonably instituted as a response to serious offenses in
school. However, research indicates that implementation of zero tolerance policies has resulted in
disparate punishments across schools and districts. Consequently, one way to maintain current
policies while ensuring greater efficacy would be to allow school administrators more discretion
through the consideration of external factors. In addition, SROs should receive trauma-informed
and culturally competent training to better assess student behavior. Such reforms would ensure
that more serious offenses could still be met with severe consequences. In cases of less extreme
offenses, SROs and teachers could use more discretion in diverting students to see a school social
worker or counselor, who would be better equipped to assess the student’s mental health needs.
This type of reform would require a tiered approach that would allow broader discretion from
A tiered approach would still allow long-term suspension of expulsion for serious offenses
that put teachers or other students at risk of physical harm, but would allow schools to issue less
severe consequences for minor offenses. Schools are not federally required to expel or impose
lengthy suspensions for drug use, yet they do so anyway. For example, a school might retain harsh
penalties like long-term suspension for students who bring alcohol to school functions, but take a
more moderate stance for a student who shares over-the-counter, anti-inflammatory medication
with a classmate. Although both might violate the school code of conduct, the latter example is
clearly less egregious than the former. This approach maintains the fundamentally retributive
approach of the previous disciplinary policies, but scaled so the punishment fits the crime.
Although recent Supreme Court rulings on whether juveniles are fundamentally different
from adults have not examined the impact that ruling has on schools, the limits on punishment
have the potential to significantly change school discipline. The US Supreme Court in Graham v.
Florida analyzed whether the rationale for punishment impacted the constitutionality of the