Zero-tolerance Discipline, Urban Schools, Failure, Illiberal Subjects


At School James, a high-poverty, high-minority inner-city elementary school in the Midwestern United States, a highly detailed system of rules and punishments is supposed to control students. The official rationale underlying this system of zero-tolerance discipline is to create environments conducive to learning. In practice, however, the meticulous system of rules, rewards, and punishments fails to achieve the desired levels of control and the realities at the school are dominated by disorder. My research sought to explain this failure and explore the consequences it has for this already marginalized student population. The present article outlines how the design of the disciplinary system makes its success impossible and ultimately dooms it to fail. While a sizable body of research addresses the negative consequences of punitive and exclusionary discipline that has come to characterize many American schools, a discussion of disciplinary under- or non-enforcement is all but absent from the literature. The mere existence of the minutely defined rules and harsh punishments that characterize zero-tolerance discipline does not mean these actually are or can be implemented as intended. By analyzing the failure of punitive discipline, my study addresses an important gap.