The end of zero tolerance

Derek Black’s book “Ending Zero Tolerance”

Maintaining classroom discipline is important, but so is maintaining student civil rights. 

According to Carolina law professor Derek Black, public education’s current hardline approach to the former is a threat to the latter— and then some. In fact, as Black argues in his new book “Ending Zero Tolerance,” the rush to suspend or expel students without considering offenses on a case-by-case basis derives from, and feeds into, “an irrational discipline system” affecting everything from student success to eventual incarceration. 

Combining legal analysis with narratives of zero tolerance run amok — think students being expelled for bringing nail clippers to school, or even just drawing pictures of weapons — “Ending Zero Tolerance” is intended to add to the scholarly conversation as well as provide a resource for lay audiences, particularly parents, teachers and administrators. 

“The more deeply I looked into the issue, the more I realized that the courts haven’t really taken the issue seriously,” Black says. “Courts take school funding seriously, they take segregation seriously, they take other civil rights issues seriously, but courts have not typically taken discipline seriously.” 

Right now, Black says, school districts and school administrators operate more or less free from oversight by the courts. And while the courts don’t dictate school policy, a wholesale abdication of legal authority on issues of classroom discipline leads, at best, to disciplinary inconsistency and, at worst, to abuse of power. 

“Courts will be very clear — it’s first and foremost the job of educators to come up with these policies. It’s not the court’s job to figure out if students should or shouldn’t be disciplined. There’s always going to be deference there,” says Black. “The problem is that in recognizing that educators have a better sense of these things, the courts have simply not bothered to look at what’s happening. Once no one’s looking over your shoulder, you’re free to do all sorts of stuff.” 

For Black, whose prior research has focused largely on issues relating to desegregation, school funding and equality of educational opportunity, the new book represents for him a foray into a new area of scholarship. What ties it all together, though, is a larger interest in issues of civil rights. 

“There’s been a groundswell of community disgruntlement with discipline for a good decade or more, particularly calling on the civil rights community, but the civil rights community has traditionally looked at bigger issues,” Black explains. “I’m sort of giving something to that community.” 

He also wants to give something to the students themselves, whose educational opportunities are affected by the culture of zero tolerance. Indeed, part of Black’s thesis hinges on the idea, supported by research, that removing students from the classroom for what are often minor infractions not only impedes that student’s education but also adversely effects the educational opportunities of other students in that class or that school. 

“The social science has come a long way since the last time these issues were addressed by the Supreme Court,” he says. “We shouldn’t be so cynical about the courts placing some limits on what the school can do. It’s worth revisiting.”