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The thoroughly refuted “zero tolerance” approach to school discipline always made zero sense.

But this rapid-suspension model continues to grip America’s public schools after decades of failure. Numerous studies show that it has produced gaping disparities that disadvantage minority children while fueling the human-rights catastrophe known as the “school-to-prison” pipeline.

Nowhere except our schools can someone be arrested, cuffed and summarily disciplined — in many cases disrupting lives and eliminating hope of upward mobility — without due process of law.

Suspensions are the top predictor of whether children will drop out of school and onto a road that includes greater likelihood of unemployment, reliance on social-welfare programs, and imprisonment.

Studies have found that zero tolerance led to higher rates of detention, suspension or expulsion among minority students compared to whites for the same infractions. In fact, Missouri has the greatest racial disparity in suspensions in the nation, a 2015 study found.

Minority children also are over-referred for special education related to behavioral problems, creating a disproportionate “two track” system: the disciplinary track and the special-education track.

Some systems have moved beyond “zero tolerance” and are finding success with innovative alternative disciplinary policies. It is time that the rest of us abandon what hasn’t worked and embrace some proven substitutes while developing other avenues that keep kids in school and enhance the educational environment for all.

When I was chief juvenile judge for St. Louis, I saw too many kids already spiraling down the pipeline. The opportunity to rise above their circumstances through education had been denied them, as well as the basic human right to hopes and dreams.

That’s why, in 2009, I helped start Innovative Concept Academy, the first court-affiliated school of last resort for children who had been expelled or suspended. There, we continue to refine a structured approach focusing on mentorship, accountability and exposure to broad life experiences.

Our model can be replicated in other districts. But it is just one of many solutions to shut down the pipeline.

Most agree that change must come from local school districts, schoolhouses and classrooms. However, some broad principles are emerging:


“Old school” thinking held that discipline must be swift and severe. But while delivering a shock to the disciplined child and the student body, it rarely corrected behaviors.

Focus more on setting clear expectations and then discovering and addressing causes for misbehavior. Investing time on the front end will reap rewards on the back end by building trust through the entire student body. Concentrate efforts on early school years, especially in developing full literacy, so that students don’t fall behind and become frustrated.



Zero tolerance embraced the “bad apple” theory — that removing children with disciplinary problems as quickly as possible was necessary for learning to take place. Rather than working to correct problems, this approach led to increasing presence of police and resource officers in schools, creating an atmosphere more redolent of corrections than education.

To reverse this, some schools are setting incentives for reducing expulsions and suspensions in favor of in-school programs of supportive intervention and mentorship.



Student-driven initiatives and mentorship programs are showing success. The idea is that the best way to influence students to self-correct behavior and underachievement is by having fellow students apply the pressure.

Pairing younger students with older “buddies” is a standard model. Provide opportunities for mentors to meet regularly with mentees to celebrate achievements and hold them accountable.


The persistence of zero-tolerance demonstrates that old systems die hard. When you work to change course, try these attention-getters:

• Trumpet the changes you are making in staff sessions, community meetings and local media.

• Draft a new student code of conduct that minimizes suspensions and allows students to learn from their mistakes.

• Work with local law enforcement to achieve “memorandums of understanding” that keep minor offenders out of criminal systems.

• Train teachers in building relationships and trust with students. Adopt “restorative practices” that get to the root of disciplinary issues by “circling up” with students when problems occur, conducting in-depth, facilitated conversations that prompt students to empathize and take responsibility for the impact of their actions.

Massive incarceration has failed to reduce crime and deepened racial and cultural disparities. Achieving equal justice and opportunity cannot be an adults-only process. It starts with our children and schools.

Jimmie M. Edwards is a judge in the 22nd Judicial Circuit of Missouri.