In the 1980s and 1990s, as crime rates started to rise, schools across the country began to crack down on violence, disorder and weapons in the classroom. A new “get tough” approach to discipline took hold that increasingly relied on swift punishment, suspensions and arrests.
By the mid-90s, that approach to discipline had been given a name: “zero tolerance.” In 1994, the federal government called for zero tolerance, or mandatory one-year expulsion, for anyone who brought a gun to school. But many schools went even further, using a zero tolerance approach for other weapons, drugs and all sorts of misbehavior. By 2011, more than three million students a year were being suspended and nearly 250,000 were being referred to the police by their schools. And those harsh punishments were much more likely to impact minorities and students with disabilities.