School Discipline Update: Colorado Task Force Recommends End to Zero Tolerance; New Study Details Disparity in Discipline Rates Across Country

Last Updated: October 27, 2011

This article appeared in the October 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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Across the country community groups and others concerned about young people have begun to push back against the growing trend for schools to use severe and punitive discipline in response to non-violent student misbehavior. Many rural community residents have identified school discipline practices, especially harsh punishments that push students out of school, as a major concern. This series highlights some of the issues in the national conversation about school discipline.

A multidisciplinary task force in Colorado has finished drafting legislative reforms of the state’s school discipline laws that would eliminate "zero tolerance" policies and reduce the availability of suspensions and expulsions as punishment for students.

The 16-member Legislative Task Force to Study School Discipline was formed in July. Six are legislators who voted to advance the proposed legislation to the Legislative Council for review. If approved by that body, the bill could be introduced in next year’s session. Other members include both prosecuting and defense attorneys, educators, parent group representatives and representatives of community organizations. 

Members of the Task Force have said that zero toleralnce policies, established in the wake of the school shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, have forced administrators to expel students without consideration of the individual student’s character or circumstances. Under the proposal, expulsion would still be mandatory for possession of a weapon at school.

One of the two legislators spearheading Task Force efforts called for a cultural change in schools around discipline in order to restore principles of age- and developmentally-appropriate consequences for younger students and standardize the use of restorative justice and conflict resolution strategies for older students.

Some of the more controversial portions of the draft bill include mandatory training requirements for staff and school resource officers as well as additional reporting requirements that would force districts to publicize their disciplinary actions. The Legislative Council will review the bill next month.

Report details disparate use of exclusionary discipline

In a new school discipline report released this month, the Colorado-based National Education Policy Center (NEPC) highlights the racial disparity present in the use of exclusionary tactics such as suspension and expulsion and confirms the negative outcomes, including diminished educational opportunity, for students receiving these punishments. Using the most recent Office of Civil Rights data, NEPC found, among other disparities, that black males in middle school were suspended at rates almost three times as high as those of white students. Notably, one of the recommendations mirrors a strategy found in the Colorado legislative proposal: better reporting of data on school discipline removals.

Read more:

Local coverage:
Background on discipline policy reform process:
Website of the Legislative Task Force to Study School Discipline, which includes a link to the draft bill:
Coverage of NEPC Report:
Read the report here:

Read more from the October 2011 Rural Policy Matters.