Data Don’t Lie: Erasing Zero Tolerance Adds Graduates, Lowers Crime Rate

Judge Steven TeskeWhen we began our journey in 2003 to dismantle our zero tolerance disciplinary system in our schools, an interesting thing happened along the way.

The crime rates went down, but not until we changed the way we disciplined kids in school.

I am not sure how many folks similarly situated in juvenile justice understand that how we treat kids in our schools is one of the most essential factors in reducing crime among juveniles, and later in reducing crime among the adult population.

As go kids, so go adults.

Our graduation rates were at an abysmal 58 percent when we embarked on our journey. Since creating our school-justice partnership program, our rates have increased every single year. This significant hike in graduation rates parallels a significant decrease in school arrests and suspensions.

Our school-justice partnership approach has resulted in a 91 percent decrease in school referrals to the court while simultaneously the overall graduation rates increased 24 percent from 2003-15. Since changing in 2012 how we report these rates from overall to on-time rates, our rates have continued to climb another 16 percent.

The correlation between school arrests as an independent variable and graduation rates as a dependent variable should not be underestimated. A regression analysis done on these two variables shows a strong statistical relationship between school referrals and graduation rates.

This is also true for suspension rates.

When undertaking reform in your system, you should guard against unintended consequences, and this requires an understanding of how differing systems interact with shared populations. When a change occurs in one place, there is a risk that a shift may occur in another place that will create problems.

This brings me to another important requirement: that data must be collected along the decision-making continuum.

For example, by removing school arrests as an option in the schematics of school discipline, how does it impact the other remaining disciplinary options? We did not plan for this, but we did collect data on out-of-school suspensions after we implemented the protocol to reduce school arrests. We discovered that these kids were shifted to the suspension option despite providing an educational alternative for these kids.

We were still battling the punitive disciplinary culture.

This brings me to another best practice in school-justice partnerships, sustainability using written interagency agreements. We would not have identified this problem shifting had we not placed our protocol in writing to include a continuing partnership. That group meets to review data to determine if the protocol was being implemented effectively, to watch out for unintended and harmful consequences and to provide oversight.

This conversation about our population being shifted from one poor response to another did two things: 1) it identified that the good news of decreasing school referrals by 54 percent within six months of implementing our partnership was not so good if we replaced it with another harsh option, and 2) it provided the opportunity to discuss how to solve the problem.

[Related: Strong Education Programs, Supports Can Be Potent for Justice-Involved Youth]

This led to the school system changing its code of conduct so that the minor school offenses that were no longer subject to referral to court were also removed from the list of suspensions. This was to prevent administrators from using out-of-school suspensions to replace arrests. We also introduced Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) as a tool for educators in the classroom. These changes have reduced the suspension rate to the levels they were in 1994 before zero tolerance policies were introduced and wreaked havoc on our graduation rates along with school arrests.

When including suspensions along with school referrals as independent variables in a multiple regression analysis, we found what we hypothesized in the beginning: Keeping kids in school and out of courts will significantly improve graduation rates.

But this brings me to the one thing we didn’t consider — the influence of graduation rates on crime as the new dependent variable.

Despite those who deny a “school to prison pipeline” exists, the research shows that school arrests double the likelihood a kid will not graduate and quadruple the likelihood if the kid appears in court. I am surprised that these “deniers” do not connect this statistic to the extremely high number of inmates in adult prisons who dropped out of school (70 percent in Georgia).

If that doesn’t grab you, consider that only 30.73 percent of Georgia kids with 15 or more days absent from school (including suspensions) graduate from school. The more we suspend and arrest kids on campus, the more likely they will drop out of school and enter our adult prisons.

A regression analysis of multiple variables including the reduction in school arrests and suspensions and the increase in graduation rates revealed a statistically significant relationship between these variables and a reduction in juvenile crime.

We hypothesized early on that as go kids, so go adults: Reducing juvenile delinquency will eventually influence the adult crime rate. Thus we looked at the crime index rates before and after enacting the protocol. What we found suggests there is a relationship between this model and growing kids into a healthier adult population with reduced risks for criminality.

Our crime rate index for the baseline year (2004) was 57 per every 1,000. The year we enacted the protocol, our crime index rate was 57 crimes for every 1,000 persons. By 2015, the rate fell to 48 for every 1,000. We also found that in the years of zero tolerance preceding our protocol, the crime index rate increased into the 60s per 1,000 suggesting a statistical relevance between zero tolerance policies and the increase in crime rates.

If such a correlation exists between crime rates and graduation rates, it would follow that the more kids we graduate, the fewer crimes. If true, this would suggest that over time, as more kids graduate each year, as in my county, and become economically mobile, the crime rate increase will slow and eventually take a downward turn.

I opine that a community that pursues a school-justice partnership with fidelity will not only improve the academic success of kids, but will improve the quality of life for the entire community in a matter of years.

It is my hope that one day our understanding of what really works to reduce crime will be so ingrained in our culture of justice that it will become intuitive for us, and no longer a challenge to do what is right for kids, which we consider counterintuitive today.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Georgia, and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, Department of Juvenile Justice Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

More related articles:

Racial Disparities Persist Even as School Suspensions Decrease, Federal Data Shows

GAO Calls for Reducing Barriers to College for Foster and Homeless Youth

Resilience: Our Nation’s Great Social Justice Issue for Kids

Educators Rethink Discipline, Learn New Moves to Dismantle School-to-Prison Pipeline


ATLANTA — When communities want to snip the school-to-prison pipeline, how do they do it?

They revise their code of conduct, redefine the role of school police, address bias, build a positive school climate and address problematic behavior in a positive way, among other things.

School officials in the Southeast learned some of these new strategies at the Rethink Discipline Regional Convening in Atlanta last week.

The conference was sponsored by the Safe and Supportive Schools Initiative of the U.S. departments of Education and Justice.

hub_arrow_2-01The goal is to reduce suspensions and expulsions — which are used disproportionately with youth of color and create a pipeline into the criminal justice system.

“Everybody is talking about this topic,” said Lisa Thurau, founder of the nonprofit Strategies for Youth, which provides training to improve police-youth interactions. The school-to-prison pipeline is seen as a real and serious problem, she said. “It’s not deniable anymore.”

Participants in the conference included Adolphus Graves, chief probation officer of the Fulton County (Georgia) Juvenile Court. “There’s a lot more movement toward understanding the effects of exclusionary discipline practices by schools,” he said.

He is currently working with Fulton County and Atlanta city schools to set up mediation, peer counseling and diversion programs to lower suspension rates and keep kids out of the court system.

School principals from Florence, South Carolina, were at the conference to revise their district’s code of conduct for students.

“What we’ve been doing has really never worked,” said Carol Hill, principal of South Florence High School.

Some schools have made changes that have worked. The city of Baltimore, for example, undertook a reform that reduced its school suspension rate from 26,324 students in 2004 to 7,550 in 2014, according to data from the Maryland State Department of Education.

When the Baltimore district began looking at its code of conduct, it found that suspension was the final consequence for numerous small offenses, such as dress code violations.The district really had no other tools to use for these offenses, one presenter noted.

[Related Assessing the Cradle-To-School-To-Prison Pipeline]

A positive approach to discipline

The Safe and Supported Schools Initiative advocates a multitiered approach to school discipline as opposed to one-size-fits-all. Rather than providing a handbook to students and talking about unacceptable behavior, schools focus on positive behaviors, and staff model them.

The conference sent the message that positive school climate can be intentionally created.

With the multitiered approach, schools have several levels of response to problematic behavior, including using different instructional methods and interventions.

The approach takes into account the various supports students may need, both behavioral and academic.


In schools, it’s routine to provide academic supports, but not behavior supports, said Ginny O’Connell, program manager for special education services and supports at the Georgia Department of Education.

“If a child has trouble learning to read, no one would send the child home,” she said. “If a child has behavior issues, why not treat those issues?”

Thurau, of Strategies for Youth, said schools should address the role of police. Are police in schools going to be a protective factor or a risk factor, she asked.

In far too many school districts their role is not clear, and policies should be written to clarify it.

“Too many police and school resource officers are used and misused by principals and others in authority,” she said.

Officers are sometimes caught between the principal and the police department, who may disagree on a given situation, she said.

It’s also important to recruit officers who are right for schools.

“You don’t want John Wayne. You want a parental figure who will dig deeper into a kid’s misbehavior rather than slapping on the handcuffs,” Thurau said.

Schools and communities need to rethink the emphasis on punishment, undertake effective alternatives and take care in planning the right relationship between schools, police and courts, she said.

Implicit bias

Another issue that schools need to address is implicit bias, said Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles.

He pointed to a recent experiment from Stanford University in which 250 teachers read a narrative of student behavior and were told the behavior was a second offense.

When the student’s name in the narrative was presumed to represent a black student (such as Deshawn) teachers recommended suspension far more often than when the name (such as Greg) was presumed to be a white student.

“If we expect black students to be disruptive and disrespectful and want to correct bad behavior, we look for it more, and we see it more often,” Losen said.

“Black students are aware of the extra scrutiny,” he said.

Lewis Brinson, chief diversity officer of Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Florida, said some teachers — both black and white — and some schools were addressing and moving beyond bias.

“What we have to do is replicate [those] who are doing it right,” he said. “We need brave leaders to step up and identify those [staff] who are falling short.”

“We need things in place where we can wake up those who are unconsciously mistreating kids,” he said. Then they can “leave their biases in the car.”

More related articles:

Ending Zero Tolerance Actually Slashes Crime in New York Schools

OP-ED: Zero Tolerance Makes Zero Sense

OP-ED: Who Benefits from Zero Tolerance Policies?

Assessing the Cradle-To-School-To-Prison Pipeline

John LashFor some time I have read about the “school to prison pipeline,” an idea that links zero tolerance policies, school policing, disproportionate minority contact with disciplinary processes, and other factors to the increased incarceration of minority youth. The basic idea is that the system formed by these practices and structures contributes to putting more kids in prison.

Lately, I have come across a similar term, the cradle to prison pipeline. This is the phrase trademarked by the Children's Defense Fund (CDF).

It is daunting to consider that societal structures and policies can have such an affect on a newborn. We can reasonably predict the chances of an infant growing up and being incarcerated based on its race. I find this very disturbing. Consider these highlights of their 2009 report:

A Black boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime; a Latino boy a 1 in 6 chance; and a White boy a 1 in 17 chance. A Black girl born in 2001 has a 1 in 17 chance of going to prison in her lifetime; a Latino girl a 1 in 45 chance; and a White girl a 1 in 111 chance.

Identified factors besides race include: pervasive poverty, inadequate access to health care, gaps in early development, unequal educational opportunities, abuse and neglect, untreated mental health issues, and an overburdened juvenile justice system that includes the school to prison pipeline.

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Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.


Reports like these are discouraging to read, and many of us turn away from such evidence. One go-to position for many is that life is about personal responsibility. By the time these people are old enough to commit crimes it is easy to say that they deserve what they get. Few people though have the heart to look at a little baby and say that he deserves to have a one in three chance of going to prison because he is black. Even the staunchest law–and–order proponent can see the inherent injustice of the situation.

Our problem is that issues like these involve a type of justice that is usually unaddressed by laws and courts: social justice. Social justice is difficult to solve through legislation. There are clear victims of injustice, but no clear perpetrators. There is no one to take to trial when kids in areas of high poverty don’t have as many experienced teachers as kids who live in richer areas. Nobody goes to prison, except the kids themselves, when children grow up in less stable homes.

schoolppipe_seriesWhat can we do about problems with such deep roots? The CDF proposes some approaches. Some particular solutions may be debatable, but I think most of us can agree that the underlying goals are worth pursuing.

  • End poverty by creating jobs that offer livable wages, increasing the minimum wage, expanding job training programs, making college affordable for every student, and expanding income supports such as the Child Tax Credit.
  • Ensure all children and pregnant woman have access to affordable comprehensive health and mental health coverage and services.
  • Make early childhood development programs accessible to every child by ensuring such programs are affordable, available and of high quality.
  • Help each child reach his/her full potential and succeed in work and life, by ensuring our schools have adequate resources to provide high quality education to every child.
  • Expand prevention and specialized treatment services for children and their parents, connect children to caring permanent families, improve the quality of the child welfare workforce and increase accountability for results for children.
  • Reduce detention and incarceration by increasing investment in prevention and early intervention strategies, such as access to quality early childhood development and education services and to the health and mental health care children need for healthy development.

End poverty, take care of kids, help people avoid going to prison. These might be outside of the scope of what people think of when we talk about justice, but they are not. If we can focus on these there may be more justice for all of us in the end.