Share this page
Subjects and topics in this lesson plan
Lesson Plan

The Clinton Presidency: “Zero Tolerance”

About this Video
This 11-minute video shows students why public schools in the 1980s and 1990s came to adopt policies based upon the doctrine of “zero tolerance,” a “law and order” approach to school discipline that included widespread use of arrests and expulsions. Following this unprecedented partnership between schools and the police, many critics are using the policy’s racially unequal outcomes to justify a less strict and punitive approach. Useful for any lesson focused on racial inequality in the educational or criminal justice system, or for any lesson exploring the swing of the pendulum towards “tough on crime” policies in the 1980s and 1990s, the video helps students see the connection between modern debates over the “school-to-prison pipeline” and the politics and culture of the 1980s and 1990s.
Content Advisory: This video includes images of violent encounters between police and students.
  • What political and cultural forces caused the U.S. government and local schools to adopt “zero tolerance” policies in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Why “zero tolerance” policies have created racially unequal outcomes, and why some policy makers and school administrators have come to advocate alternative approaches to school discipline.
  • How the doctrine of “zero tolerance” reflects the politics and culture of the 1980s and 1990s.
  • How educational policy is related to the criminal justice system and to racial equality.
  • U.S. History
  • Criminal Justice
  • Race in America
  • Bill Clinton
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
  • 1990s America
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

In the 1980s, reports that public schools were becoming places of fear and violence focused national attention on Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J.

There, a feisty principal named Joe Clark was imposing a tough, new approach to discipline, suspending kids without hall passes, threatening drug dealers with a baseball bat, and even expelling some 300 students considered hardcore trouble makers.

Clark’s flair and effectiveness made him nationally known, and his reputation grew after a TV movie based on his life – Lean on Me, starring Morgan Freeman – was released, and spread the gospel that tough discipline worked.

By 1994, with reports of gun violence in schools increasing, a new federal law added clout to Clark’s approach by mandating that any states receiving federal education money expel students found bringing a weapon to class.

That policy became known as “zero tolerance,” and it was soon extended to cover students who had committed minor infractions, like kicking over a trash can.

By 2011, schools across the nation were suspending up to 3 million students a year. Local police had become a continuing presence in many schools, and they were handling traditional discipline problems. Tens of thousands of students wound up arrested.

A disproportionate number of those students were either African-American, Latino, or disabled, mentally or physically.

The disastrous unintended consequences of “zero tolerance” eventually led the federal Department of Education to issue new guidelines in 2014. They aimed to prevent students who committed routine infractions from landing at a police station.

Essential Questions
  • Why did the federal government and local schools move towards “zero tolerance” policies?
  • What kinds of policies and rules were created as part of the “zero tolerance” approach?
  • How did the “zero tolerance” rules affect students?
  • In recent years, why have some school districts and policymakers chosen to move away from the “zero tolerance” approach?
Lesson Procedure
  • The “zero tolerance” policies were part of a pendulum swing towards “tough on crime” in the 1990s. What other policies shifted in this period?
  • If students engage in violence at school, what should the consequence be? Should law enforcement officers be assigned to work directly inside a school campus?
  • How does ideology (such as “liberal” and “conservative”) affect attitudes and policies towards punishment and discipline?
  • What should schools do to create an orderly learning environment in which teachers can teach and students can learn?
Additional Resources
Transcript for "How Zero Tolerance Blurred the Lines Between Schools and Criminal Justice" Retro Report
“The Unintended Consequences of Taking a Hard Line on School Discipline” Retro Report
Audio Interview: "The Rise and Fall of Zero Tolerance Policies" WNYC

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.

Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.

Skill 5.B: Explain how a historical development relates to another historical development.

Theme 7: American and Regional Culture (ARC);

Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: [email protected]