Select Page

SSW Research Brief: The Effect of Zero Tolerance Laws on Exclusionary Discipline

SSW Research Brief: The Effect of Zero Tolerance Laws on Exclusionary Discipline

Curran, F.C. (2016). Estimating the effect of zero tolerance laws on exclusionary discipline, racial discipline gaps, and student behavior. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 38(4), 647-668. doi: 10.3102/0162373716652728

What is the study about?

This study examined the effect of implementing state zero tolerance laws on suspension rates and principals’ perceptions of student behavior. Study authors also explored whether any differences in suspension rates were related to student race.

Zero tolerance laws/policies: Laws or policies that mandate certain consequences (typically severe consequences like expulsion) for specific offenses, regardless of the circumstances.


Previous research has shown that experiencing suspension or expulsion predicts lower academic achievement and increased risk for involvement in the criminal justice system. Numerous studies show zero tolerance laws to be ineffective at reducing problem behaviors in school however they continue to be implemented.

What did they find?

After implementation of zero tolerance laws…
There was about an 8% increase in district suspensions (about 35 more students per year for average sized districts of about 7,000 students)
There was a higher use of exclusionary discipline
Black students were suspended 3 times as often as White students
There were no changes in school leaders’ perceptions of the frequency of certain problem behaviors

Why is it important?

Such laws could cause administrators to misinterpret some behaviors as violent or more severe than they are. In addition to being ineffective, zero tolerance laws have a disproportionate impact on students of color thus contributing to the racial discipline gap. Exploring the discipline policies of districts serving large numbers of Hispanic students may inform change efforts for districts serving primarily Black students.


What can School Social Workers do?

  • Remain informed about upcoming policy changes in your state by becoming a member of your state school social work association. To find your state assoc. visit
  • If this issue is not being discussed in your state, bring it to the attention of your representatives by calling or writing to them. Every phone call, letter and personal visit makes an impact! Visit and to find your state representatives and senators.
  • Consider joining the School Social Work Association of America for support, training & resources on advocacy. Visit for information and resources about how you can take action!


How was the study done?

This study used data from two nation-wide data sets and examined the effect of zero tolerance laws on suspension rates and principal perceptions of problem behaviors. Authors used a mathematical modeling technique that holds the state, year and certain school characteristics constant so that changes in each states’ zero tolerance law can be isolated as a predictor of suspension rates and principal perceptions.

About The Author

Michele Patak-Pietrafesa

Michele Patak-Pietrafesa, LISW-S is a PhD candidate in the College of Social Work at the Ohio State University. Her dissertation research explores teacher perceptions and how these relate to various outcomes for students of color. She teaches both in-person and online courses in research and statistics in the BSW program at OSU and conducts trainings and guest lectures on topics related to evaluating social work practice, school social work, and anti-racist practice.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest