Zero-tolerance policies first began to be considered during the Reagan era, with the "Just Say No" to drugs campaign, but did not become widespread until after Congress passed the 1994 Guns-Free Schools Act mandating a one-year expulsion and criminal charges for students caught bringing a gun to public schools.
Included in that law, though, was the opportunity for school administrators to review the individual circumstances of each case before making a judgement.
The language was amended a year later to expand the expulsion to include anyone bringing a "weapon" to school.
"I think this is really a case of unintended consequences," said Bernardine Dohrn, the director of the Children and Family Justice Center of the Northwestern University School of Law.
By 1997, 94 percent of the nation's public schools had zero-tolerance policies for firearms, 91 percent had such policies for weapons other than firearms, and 79 percent had them for violence, according to the most recent study by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.
According to the same study, 88 percent of the nation's schools had zero-tolerance rules for drugs and 79 percent for tobacco.
An End to Discrimination?
Even supporters of the policies admit there have been aberrations that make the rules appear ridiculous.
"Critics point to a handful of cases in which Zero Tolerance has led to absurd results, including elementary school children suspended for carrying nail clippers or bringing plastic knives to school to cut the fruit in their lunches," State University of New York at Buffalo law professor Charles Patrick Ewing wrote in an article for the Harvard Education Letter, "Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance."
"If this is what is meant by Zero Tolerance, the critics are right; some schools have wildly overreacted," he wrote.
But supporters say that whatever their flaws, the policies create a system in which discrimination and prejudice are essentially eliminated, because school administrators cannot be more lenient towards the white, middle-class student who violates a rule than to the poor, minority student who breaks the same rule.
"That's always the argument," Dohrn said. "The discrimination just moves around. It doesn't disappear."
Russ Skiba, the director of the Institute for Child Study and an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Psychology at Indiana University, said statistics from virtually every study done of school discipline show that zero tolerance seems to have had no effect on who gets punished.
A Children's Defense Fund study from 1975 — long before zero tolerance became vogue — found that black children were two or three times as likely to be suspended as white students. Skiba said that recent studies show those statistics to be virtually unchanged.
Among recent studies, data from the Ohio Department of Education showed that of 297 districts that divided their discipline data by race, 252 disciplined blacks more frequently than whites. Skiba said those figures reflect nationwide trends.
He discounted arguments that the reason for that disparity is that it mirrors a higher rate at which black youngsters commit serious infractions in schools.