Overview of the 2008 TeamChild Youth and Policy Internship

TeamChild is a nonprofit agency providing legal aid services to youth involved in or at risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system. This website is a culminating project of TeamChild’s Youth Law and Policy Internship. TeamChild recruited a team of three law students and hired three local youth to work on an advocacy plan that focused on the relationship between school discipline practices, drop outs and juvenile justice involvement. This phenomenon is known nationally as the "School to Prison Pipeline” and describes the plight of many of TeamChild’s clients. In addition to researching this topic, the intern team convened roundtable discussions with legislators, school district representatives and judges to gain an understanding of the multiple perspectives and factors contributing to this phenomenon.

What is the School to Prison Pipeline?

“The school-to-prison pipeline” describes the cumulative effect of various federal, state, and local policies that are leading students away from high school completion towards criminal justice involvement. Many of these policies center around the enforcement of punishment and creating a safe school environment, but the actual implementation of these policies have created greater education disparities under the guise of keeping schools safer. A major philosophy that has contributed to the negative impact of these policies is “Zero Tolerance". Under this idea, School administrators who use Zero Tolerance - and not all of them do - use suspension or expulsion for certain behaviors after asking few to no  questions about the incident.

What is Zero Tolerance?

"Zero tolerance" became popular during the War on Drugs, when U.S. Attorney Peter Nunez used Zero Tolerance as the title of a program aimed at stopping illegal drugs from entering the United States. Customs officials impounded any and all vehicles crossing into the U.S. with even trace amounts of drugs and charged the passengers in Federal Court. During the War on Drugs, the national prison population exploded and racial minorities bore the brunt of it.


From Federal Drug Enforcement...to Schools?

In 1994, Zero Tolerance made its way from drug policy to education policy when President Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act, (GFSA) which mandates that students who possess a firearm at school are expelled for one year and referred to the police. The GFSA allows the principal to modify the punishment on a case-by-case basis. Once meant to tackle gun violence at school, Zero Tolerance became a legislative and school district tool for dealing with student misconduct that is far less serious than gun possession.

The Impact of Zero Tolerance on American Schools?

Many school administrators believed schools would be safer and the learning environment would improve if they took a hard line against minor misconduct. Therefore, school exclusion (suspensions and expulsions) became the dominant and preferred punishment technique around the country. Just as the hard line approach to drugs impacted racial minorities most harshly, the hard line approach to student misbehavior impacts minority students disproportionately and more harshly. Over the last five years, Zero Tolerance has been harshly criticized by the American Psychological Association (APA), the American Bar Association (ABA), The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), and newspapers across the country.

Below are just a few examples of how zero tolerance policies have been used by schools to discipline students for seemingly minor "offenses".


  • 6 year old kindergartener handcuffed, arrested, fingerprinted, charged with a felony
    and sent to jail after throwing a temper tantrum over jellybeans.


  • 13 year old girl strip-searched after being suspected of possessing non-prescription ibuprofen.

  • 5 year old suspended and threatened with expulsion while playing cops and robbers on the playground.

  • High school sophomore expelled for bringing a nail clipper to school.

  • 12 year old arrested and hand cuffed after he returned a punch after being hit by a classmate.

  • Second grader suspended for sexual harassment after smacking another second grader on the bottom.1

Is Zero Tolerance Still A Good Idea?

Many schools argue that as long as administrators are allowed to take a student's individual situation into account these types of absurd punishments won't happen. While it is true that some administrators  are allowed to use discretion, the philosophy of zero tolerance is so pervasive that administrators everywhere continue to rely primarily on suspension as their go-to punishment.

Our nation is in an educational crisis. Nationally only 75% of students entering the 9th grade will graduate with their class.2

In Washington State only 70.4% will make it.3 

And in Seattle which has an average graduation rate of 61.5%, only 52.4 % of African Americans and 35.1% of Native Americans actually graduate.4


[1] http://www.crossroad.to/News/zero.html

[2]NCES Drop Out Rates in the United states 2004 available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2007/2007024.pdf

[3]Report card http://reportcard.ospi.k12.wa.us/summary.aspx?year=2006-07

[4]2007 district profile