Suspensions in New York City: The Zero-Tolerance Policy


In New York City, the definition of suspension includes a dismissal from school of up to one year. Expulsion only occurs if students are over 17 years of age at the beginning of the school year.

The number of suspensions in New York City public schools has greatly increased since the implementation of the “zero tolerance policy” in 1999. The theory behind the zero tolerance policy is that if students that disrupt classrooms are punished harshly, it will deter others from misbehaving.  Suspension is used most often in order to keep the misbehaving student from disrupting the other students that continue to behave well and want to learn. The New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE) mandates a number of behaviors in which the minimum punishment is suspension.  It is only in September of 2010 that the DOE has cut down on the number of offenses that would result in a punishment of suspension (NYC DOE, 2010).

It is easy to see the manifestation of the zero tolerance policy in New York City, as many schools have metal detectors and security personnel. School Safety Officers have the power to search and seize students and their belongings.  However, they do not have the power to suspend students, though they do often provide witness at student suspension hearings.  School Safety Officers undergo six weeks of training and are taught the same tactics as New York Police Department (NYPD) street police, but have little to no training on child and adolescent development (New York Civil Liberties Union [NYCLU], 2011).

Types of Suspensions

There are 5 types of suspensions for students in New York City (NYCDOE, 2012):

1) Removal From A Classroom by a Teacher: 1-4 day suspension. The student is sent to another learning setting within the school.  This type of suspension is only recorded at the school-level, so the DOE cannot measure or report on how often this happens, and its effects.

 2) Principal’s Suspension: 1-5 day suspension. The student must be provided with the schoolwork and homework they are missing.

3)  Continued Suspension: “Superintendent’s suspension” 6-10 days. The student is assigned a location for learning outside of the school.

4) Extended Suspension: 30-60 days. The student is assigned a location for learning outside of the school.

5) Full Year Suspension: The student is assigned a location for learning outside of the school.

Who Gets Suspended?

Suspensions disproportionately affect African-American and special needs students.  Special needs students are four times as likely to be suspended and African-American students make up 33% or the student population, but 53% of the suspended population in the past 10 years (NYCLU, 2011). Harsh disciplinary approaches lead to a poor school climate which manifests in lower test scores (American Psychological Association, 2008).  Strict disciplinary approaches have the side-effect of punishing many students harshly for subjectively bad behavior (i.e.: foul language, inappropriate essays, tempers tantrums).

Consequences & Policy Changes

For the past 10 years, with the installation of the Zero Tolerance Policy under the Bloomberg administration, the rate of suspensions has increased greatly, leading to an abundance of research to be conducted examining this topic.

A few key research findings include:

1)    The increase in suspensions has also lead to an increase of students incurring multiple suspensions in a single year.  In 1999, 23% of students suspended served multiple suspensions during the school year (NYCLU, 2011).

2)    Taking students out of the structured environment of school disrupts education and escalates poor behavior, making it more difficult to succeed (Cregor & Hewitt, 2011).  Because of this, suspensions have become a predictor for future misbehavior and more suspensions (NYCLU, 2011).

3)    The National Center for Education Statistics (Snyder & Dillow, 2008) reported that “A student who is repeatedly suspended in the eighth, ninth, and tenth grades is likely to be so far behind by 17 that they feel their only option is to drop out”.

There is no evidence to support that zero-tolerance policies work. However, sufficient evidence was found to support that zero tolerance policies create poorer school climates, the city decided it needed to change to a friendlier and more efficient approach. These findings have led to some recent changes in the city’s 2012 Discipline Code, including:

1)    Restorative approaches, such as parent meetings, peer mediation, and collaborative negotiation.

2)    Alternative disciplinary measures other than the tough action of suspensions. These alternative measures are placed under a heading titled “progressive discipline” which stresses the fact that moments of misbehavior can become teaching moments, and that suspension is not the only way to stop misbehavior.

3)    Increased focus on making sure students are given the academic support they need while on suspension.

These changes in the Citywide Standards may translate themselves into school policies that rely less heavily on suspension as a primary punishment, thereby addressing student behavior more effectively.

Several initiatives have already called for a reduction in suspensions. For example, the Dignity in Schools coalition works with parents, teachers, students, and community organizations that advocates for student and civil rights.  This coalition firmly believes that the high number of suspensions is denying students access to their civil right to education.  Their approach to change is to systematically use alternative guidance measures and limit the number of incidents that would cause suspensions (Dignity in Schools Campaign, 2011).


American Psychological Association. (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in

schools? American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force.

Arts, A., Bahl, T., Foster, T., Miller, J., Ofer, U., Phenix, D., Sheehan, N.,& Thomas, H. (2011).  Education interrupted. The New York Civil Liberties Union.  New York, NY:US

Cregor, M. & Hewitt, D. (2011) Dismantling the school to prison pipeline. Poverty & Race. 20(1), 5-7. Dignity in School Campaign. (2011). Suspension rates in New York city schools still too high based on new data. Dignity in Schools. Retrieved from

New York City Department of Education. (2010). Citywide standards of intervention and discipline measures: The discipline code and bill of student rights and responsibilities, K-12.  New York, NY:US.

New York City Department of Education. (2012). Citywide standards of intervention and discipline measures: The discipline code and bill of student rights and responsibilities, K-12. New York, NY:US.

Snyder, T. & Dillow, S. (2008). Digest of education statistics 2008. The National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC:US.