Nearly two decades after a zero-tolerance culture took hold in American schools, a growing number of educators and elected leaders are scaling back discipline policies that led to lengthy suspensions and ousters for such mistakes as carrying toy guns or Advil.
This rethinking has come in North Carolina and Denver, in Baltimore and Los Angeles — part of a phenomenon driven by high suspension rates, community pressure, legal action and research findings. In the Washington region, Fairfax County is considering policy changes after a wave of community concern; school leaders in the District and Prince George’s, Arlington and Montgomery counties have pursued new ideas, too.
The shift is a quiet counterpoint to a long string of high-profile cases about severe punishments for childhood misjudgments. In recent months, a high school lacrosse player was suspended in Easton, Md., and led away in handcuffs for having a pocketknife in his gear bag that he said was for fixing lacrosse sticks. Earlier, a teenager in the Virginia community of Spotsylvania was expelled for blowing plastic pellets through a tube at classmates.
Now, in many areas, efforts are underway to find a more calibrated approach to school discipline. Educators are increasingly focused on the fallout of suspensions, which are linked to lower academic achievement and students dropping out.
In Delaware, for example, zero-tolerance cases were a repeated issue in the Christina School District, where a 6-year-old with a camping utensil that included a knife was suspended in 2009. Discipline procedures were revamped last year, giving administrators the discretion to consider a student’s intent and grade, as well as the risk of harm. Out-of-school suspensions in the state’s largest school system fell by one-third in a year.
“It’s a more child-centered approach,” said Wendy Lapham, a spokeswoman for the Christina schools.
In North Carolina, zero- tolerance also is being ratcheted back in the Wake County School District, the state’s largest. “This has been the biggest overhaul of our discipline policies in the last 30 years,” said Wake school board member Keith Sutton, who concluded that suspension numbers were so high at two schools that it was like “zero- tolerance gone wild.”
Over the years, “zero-tolerance” has described discipline policies that impose automatic consequences for offenses, regardless of context. The term also has come to refer to severe punishments for relatively minor infractions. Some schools boast of using zero-tolerance; others insist that they do nothing of the sort.
Skeptics of zero-tolerance say much remains to be done. “The tide is in some ways beginning to turn, but we have a very long way to go to see these reforms realized for all districts across the country,” said Matt Cregor  of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.