a critical look at the child welfare system

DOJ and Education Dept Weigh in on Zero Tolerance Programs

In August 2011, Attorney General Holder and the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, announced a new initiative called the Supportive School discipline Initiative to address the problem of “zero tolerance” policies that impose harsh punishments – such as expulsion – for relatively minor infractions. Recent studies show children punished in this manner are more likely to repeat a grade, not graduate, or become involved in the juvenile justice system. The initiative is a collaboration between the two Departments.

On January 8, 2014, the Department of Justice and Department of Education announced the jointly devised School Discipline Guidance Rollout, addressing the issue of “zero tolerance” policies in the nation’s schools.

Speaking at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, Maryland, Attorney General Eric Holder explained:

As it stands, far too many students across the country are diverted from the path to success by unnecessarily harsh discipline policies and practices that exclude them from school for minor infractions. During critical years that are proven to impact a student’s later chances for success, alarming numbers of young people are suspended, expelled, or even arrested for relatively minor transgressions like school uniform violations, schoolyard fights, or showing “disrespect” by laughing in class.

Too often, so-called “zero-tolerance” policies – however well-intentioned – make students feel unwelcome in their own schools. They disrupt the learning process. And they can have significant and lasting negative effects on the long-term well-being of our young people – increasing their likelihood of future contact with juvenile and criminal justice systems.

The guidance came about as the result of “close and longstanding cooperation between the Departments of Justice and Education, as well as extensive research and collaboration with school leaders, educators, and parents,” Holder added.

The guidance is intended to assist school districts, public elementary and secondary school teachers, as well as administrators “in meeting their obligations under federal law to develop and implement disciplinary policies without discrimination.”

Holder explained that the guidance will “provide useful information for school resource officers, recommendations for evidence-based alternatives to exclusionary discipline, and fresh approaches for monitoring and addressing racial and other disparities. Even more critically, it will offer new tools for educators, policymakers, and parents to promote fair and effective practices that make schools not only safer, but more supportive and inclusive.”

Seeking to avoid potential liability, schools have been hiding behind a wall of resource officers, police, and privatized security guards, explains a Dear Colleague letter sent to school officials around the nation. This does not provide the schools with the legal insulation that they desire. To the contrary: “Schools cannot divest themselves of responsibility for the nondiscriminatory administration of school safety measures and student discipline by relying on school resource officers, school district police officers, contract or private security companies, security guards or other contractors, or law enforcement personnel. To the contrary, the Departments may hold schools accountable for discriminatory actions taken by such parties.”

Press Releases



  • Dear Colleague letter
    Guidance letter prepared with our partners at the U.S. Department of Justice describing how schools can meet their obligations under federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
    Dear Colleague letter-English | Dear Colleague letter-En español

  • Guiding Principles
    Guidance document which draws from emerging research and best practices to describe three key principles and related action steps that that can help guide state- and locally controlled efforts to improve school climate and school discipline.
    Guiding Principles; Prólogo de Secretario Arne Duncan; En español

  • Outline of Recent Federal Rfforts
    Outline of recent federal efforts on these issues through the interagency Supportive School Discipline Initiative.
    Overview of the Supportive School Discipline Initiatives