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Unintended Consequences: The Impact of "Zero Tolerance" and Other Exclusionary Policies on Kentucky Students

NCJ Number
David Richart; Kim Brooks; Mark Soler
Date Published
February 2003
38 pages

This study examined the extent of juvenile crime in Kentucky’s public schools, Kentucky’s response to crime in schools, and whether Kentucky’s school policies regarding discipline disproportionately affects any particular group.


High profile criminal events in schools during the 1990’s spurred Kentucky school officials, like others around the Nation, to adopt zero tolerance policies toward school disciplinary problems. While popular among school officials, such zero tolerance policies apply harsh penalties to even minor acts of misconduct on school property. Not only are such policies reactionary and harsh, recent research has indicated that such policies disproportionately impact youth of color, particularly African-Americans. Questions have also been raised regarding the liberal use of suspensions and expulsions, which only serve to remove students from the stability and guidance they need, put them behind in school work, and increase the amount of unsupervised free time available to youth at risk. The current study included an extensive national and State literature review, a review of the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts for referrals of students by school officials, and a review of the data collected by the Kentucky Center for School Safety regarding school incidents that resulted in suspensions or expulsions. Finally, the verbal and written comments of nearly 500 juvenile justice and child welfare professionals who attended 4 forums convened by the Children’s Law Center and Kentucky State agencies in 2001 and 2002 were also reviewed for this study. The findings indicated that Kentucky does not have a serious problem with school crime. Indeed, most of the offenses that were referred to juvenile court by school officials involved truancy or “being beyond the reasonable control of the school.” The most common reaction by Kentucky school officials to school disciplinary problems is out-of-school suspension, while the use of expulsion remains rare. Across the board, the suspension rate for African-American students was significantly greater than for White students; in some districts in Kentucky, the expulsion rate for African-Americans was 17 times that for Whites. Finally, the study discovered that the result of zero tolerance policies is a shift of responsibility from schools to courts. The authors offer recommendations for parents and students, principals, local school officials, the Kentucky Department of Education, and the juvenile justice system. In general, schools must take a balanced approach to risky behaviors and take back responsibility for its students. Tables, references