Preventive Discipline / INTRODUCTION
The Legacy of Zero Tolerance Policies: The Discipline Gap
The difference in discipline outcomes between minoritized groups and their white peers is referred to as the discipline gap.


Despite the adoption of Zero Tolerance policies being a national phenomenon, we find that their implementation differs based on student demographics. Between schools, zero tolerance policies are more likely to be used in urban schools with large percentages of Black student enrollment (1). Within schools, African American Students are more likely to be disciplined, and face harsher discipline for the same behaviors as their white peers (2;3). Although the Zero Tolerance Policies have increased suspension and expulsion rates for all students, the increase has been most dramatic for African American students. Generally speaking African American youth are 4x as likely to be suspended as their white peers. Other historically disadvantaged groups such as LGBTQ students, Latinx students, and students with disabilities also face disproportionately higher suspension and expulsion rates (4;5). This difference in discipline outcomes is referred to as The Discipline Gap. The discipline gap starts as early as pre-school and persists into middle and high school. Research has shown that the discipline gap cannot be explained by factors such as poverty, differences in behaviors, academic achievement, and income alone. Therefore, teacher behavior and other school-level factors are likely to be responsible for part of the discipline gap. While the Zero Tolerance Policies were intended to deal with school safety, schools expanded the policies to cover non-safety related activities such as dress code violations, tardiness, disrespect, and disruption (5). The discipline gap tends to manifest itself here in these more minor subjective policies (6;7).


1) Welch, K., & Payne, A. A. (2010). Racial threat and punitive school discipline. Social Problems, 57(1), 25-48.

2) Gregory, A., & Weinstein, R. S. (2008). The discipline gap and African Americans: Defiance or cooperation in the high school classroom. Journal of school psychology, 46(4), 455-475.

3) Lewis, A. E., & Diamond, J. B. (2015). Despite the best intentions: How racial inequality thrives in good schools. Oxford University Press.

4) Himmelstein, K. E., & Brückner, H. (2011). Criminal-justice and school sanctions against nonheterosexual youth: A national longitudinal study. Pediatrics, 127(1), 49-57.

5) Skiba, R. J., & Losen, D. J. (2016). From reaction to prevention: Turning the page on school discipline. American Educator, 39(4), 4.

6) Skiba, R. J., Michael, R. S., Nardo, A. C., & Peterson, R. L. (2002). The color of discipline: Sources of racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment. The urban review, 34(4), 317-342.

7) Losen, D. J., & Martinez, T. E. (2013). Out of school and off track: The overuse of suspensions in American middle and high schools.