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Blog: The Limits of Zero Tolerance Policies: What (and Who) Isn’t Tolerated? by Kathleen King Thorius

A few weeks ago, a Black student in one of my graduate seminars came to meet with me for office hours. He had a lot on his mind as a special education teacher in a local urban middle school, not the least of which was something that had happened that day. One of his Latino students with a dis/ability label had said, “I just wish I could blow up this place”. As a first year teacher, he wasn’t sure what to do. He reached out to the school counselor, and soon found the incident out of his hands. Instead, in accordance with the school’s zero tolerance policy related to student threats of violence, a school psychologist began to “evaluate” the student’s capacity and likelihood to carry out his statement. In this and other instances of zero-tolerance, educators’ discretion in disciplinary responses to particular student actions that violate school codes of conduct is removed, regardless of circumstances (Macey, Thorius, & Skelton, 2013). But what are the circumstances? Who are the students being disregarded?

Zero-Tolerance for Innocuous or Unintentional Actions, Disproportionately Applied to Historically Marginalized Students

About a year ago while working with an urban school district that had been under an Office for Civil Rights resolution agreement for disproportionately suspending and expelling African American students, I learned that only a few years earlier, an African American elementary student had been expelled for one year for having brought a box cutter to school in her new coat pocket. Her parent explained that it must have been left by someone at the store at which they had purchased the coat, but the district had dismissed these details as irrelevant due to their zero tolerance policies. The district had previously made exceptions to zero tolerance policies for unintentional actions by white and bi-racial students, yet for this student, the district and state boards of education upheld the expulsion as warranted. As this example and countless others like suspensions for possession of ibuprofen (Fuentes, 2013) illustrate, that the action of this student was unintentional doesn’t matter. Zero tolerance policies have been disproportionality applied and resulted in similarly disproportionate numbers of Black, Latino, and Native American students and students with disability labels being suspended and expelled from school (Skiba & Sprague, 2008); claims that zero tolerance approaches remove subjectivity and ensure equitable discipline across student groups, particularly in instances of innocuous or inadvertent behaviors, are clearly unwarranted.

Zero Tolerance for Student Behavior as a Response to Systemic and Targeted Violence Enacted Upon Them

A few years ago, a Black openly gay student was expelled from an urban high school under the auspices of the district’s zero-tolerance policy after firing a stun gun in the air. He was being surrounded by several students who were threatening to physically hurt him, and calling him homophobic and racial slurs. He brought the stun gun to school because his mother gave it to him to protect himself after students had thrown rocks at him and spat at him, and when he reported this to school administrators, they told him he should act less “flamboyant” to keep himself from being bullied. This student, although in possession of a weapon, had not been supported in response to his many appeals to the administration for protection from harm. Because of the school district’s zero tolerance policy, in this instance and others like it, the systematic acts of bullying and harassment experienced by this student and which are disproportionately experienced by LGBTQ+ students (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network [GLSEN], 2013) as compared to their “straight” counterparts, are inconsequential.

Toward Zero Tolerance for Racism and Other Forms of Systemic Violence

Much of the research on alternatives to zero-tolerance discipline policies focuses on opportunities for students’ being taught and learning expected behavior, collaborative problem-solving, and building positive relationships. For example, restorative justice policies facilitate dialogue and student and educators’ engagement in collaborative resolutions to problematic student actions (Gonzalez, 2011). Indeed, in 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, issued guidance in the form of a “Dear Colleague Letter” to public elementary and secondary schools for meeting Federal obligations to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Guidance included review and revisions for clarity in school discipline policy, providing explicit training for families and students on discipline expectations, and providing counseling and other social-emotional supports for students whose behavior is harmful to themselves or others. Of course, guidance like this is well-founded and relevant.

At the same time, given a deeper look at what and whom are not tolerated by zero-tolerance policies, guidance on alternatives must simultaneously aim to dig out the roots of blame and fear held by educators who apply zero-tolerance policies whether in response to a student of color who sneaks a sheet of stickers from his teacher’s desk, or to the transgender dis/abled student who keeps a nail scissors in her pocket for protection. In doing so, it is not enough to engage conversations that stop at “we are all different and that’s OK”: not enough for our work as educators and across all of our roles in schools and society. At the same time friends and family of color are having “the talk” about self-protection with their own children and students, those of us who embody and benefit from race, ability, and heterosexual and cisgender (among other forms of) privilege must excavate it, criticize it, and reject it with ours. And this must be a focus of such relationships in schools and classrooms, between teachers, students, and families – of any and all so-called anti-bullying and harassment efforts, transformative and restorative justice and peer mediated discipline programs in schools. The only “zero-tolerance” worth pursuing is that of total rejection of beliefs and behaviors that position of youth of color and those from other historically marginalized groups as a threat to white, non-dis/abled and other dominant group youth and adults. That is, explicit efforts must be made by those in school communities to unearth and eliminate the notions of superiority and inferiority students and teachers alike are taught and learn from the world and those around them. Without such critical reflection, the student of color who brought the box cutter still will be assumed by many white educators, unconsciously or with consciousness, to be a danger to others, especially white students and teachers. And the “threat assessment” of the student of color with a dis/ ability who makes a comment about blowing up the school will still be devoid of efforts to understand systemic and individual acts of physical and symbolic violence enacted upon him.

An interactive Policy Equity Analysis Toolkit developed by the Great Lakes Equity Center (2016), a regional Equity Assistance Center funded by the US Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Programs, provides a set of critical considerations and processes for engaging in review and revision of all school policies that disproportionately and negatively impact historically marginalized students. You may find and download this tool for free, here.


Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. (GLSEN; 2013). The 2013 national school climate survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. GLSEN Online. Retrieved from:

Great Lakes Equity Center. (2016). Policy equity analysis toolkit. Equity Toolkit Series. Indianapolis, IN: Author.

Gonzalez, T. (2011). Keeping kids in schools: Restorative justice and the school to prison pipeline. Retrieved from:

Macey, E. M., Thorius, K. A. K., & Skelton, S. M. (2012) Equity by design: Engaging school communities in critical reflection on policy. Equity by Design Research Brief Series. Indianapolis, IN: Great Lakes Equity Center. Retrieved from:

Skiba, R., & Sprague, R. (2008). Safety without suspensions. Educational Leadership, 66(1), 38-43.

U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights. (2014). Dear colleague letter: Nondiscriminatory administration of school discipline. Retrieved from:

Author Biography

Dr. Thorius is Associate Professor of Special Education and Urban Educational Studies in Indiana University’s School of Education, and Principal Investigator of the Region V Equity Assistance Center which supports education agencies in school desegregation efforts. Dr. Thorius is an internationally recognized expert in culturally responsive and sustaining education, special and inclusive education, working with families, equity considerations in multi-tiered systems of support, and equity-oriented professional development, all toward quality educational experiences for historically underserved students. Published extensively in practitioner and research outlets, including Harvard Educational Review, the International Journal of Inclusive EducationTheory into Practice, and Race, Gender, & Class, Dr. Thorius was a school psychologist before earning her Ph.D. from Arizona State University as an USDOE-funded doctoral fellow in an interdisciplinary program to prepare culturally responsive special education professors. During this time, she was professional learning coordinator for the National Center for Culturally Responsive Education Systems and the National Center for Urban School Improvement—and co-directed the Region IX EAC, the Equity Alliance at ASU. Dr. Thorius presents nationally and internationally on race, language, and dis/ability equity, and multi-tiered systems of support including culturally responsive school-wide discipline approaches. Her expertise undergirds past and current work with myriad US urban, rural, and suburban school districts and state departments of education. Dr. Thorius was recognized as the 2013 IUPUI Chancellor’s Diversity Scholar and 2015 Indiana University Trustees’ Teaching Awardee.