policies entirely, and have implemented multiple interventions instead. This approach is supported
by research that shows low-risk offenders are not helped by extreme interventions. The majority
of juvenile offenders can be successfully treated in community settings, which may include a
restorative justice court, school mediation, or family interventions. The juvenile justice system is
not equipped to handle the number of adolescents who enter the system with mental health needs.
These types of issues would more appropriately be dealt with in the community, and could be part
of early interventions to prevent violence and disruptions at school.
One way to replace zero-tolerance policies in schools in a developmentally informed way
is to use a tiered intervention strategy. Primary interventions target the entire student body; this
might include a student-led anti-bullying campaign. Another benefit to this approach is that it can
help increase the school climate and students’ sense of belonging, both of which are risk factors
for student misconduct. Secondary interventions use a risk assessment to determine which students
are at a higher risk for engaging in disruptive or violent behavior. Risk assessments are crucial to
ensure that high-risk offenders receive the correct interventions, and they prevent low-level
offenders from receiving unduly harsh penalties. Tertiary response is reserved for students who
have already been disruptive, and might involve restorative justice practices. This is in contrast to
the reform approach, where schools could still take a zero-tolerance approach to the most serious
offenders and use out of school-suspension or expulsion. A school may still exercise discretion in
imposing tertiary responses, scaled to the severity of the offense.
Schools are at a crossroads in determining to what extent emerging data on adolescent
development applies to school discipline. Although the initial push for zero tolerance policies at
school was well intentioned, it has since morphed into an inconsistent and punitive model for
discipline. On one hand, existing policies may be reformed to better serve the school community.
This would include better training for school resource officers, teachers, and other school
employees to be more culturally competent and aware of student mental health needs. To apply
more consistent punishments, schools should also create clear guidelines on impermissible
conduct, and more appropriately scaled punishments that are proportional to the violation. The
other side argues for a more extreme overhaul of the system, and advocates for a complete
replacement of zero tolerance policies with rehabilitative programs. This model would incorporate
more stringent preventive programs and early interventions, as well as restorative justice models
following misconduct. Both approaches have merits and evidence to support their efficacy.
American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the
Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations, AM. PSYCHOL. ASS’N. (Dec. 2008),
Barry C. Feld, Competence and Culpability: Delinquents in Juvenile Courts, Youth in Criminal Courts, 102 MINN.
L. REV. 474 (2017).
David O. Brink, Immaturity, Normative Competence, and Juvenile Transfer: How (not) to Punish Minors for Major
Crimes, 82 TEX. L. REV. 1555 (2004).