Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Michael J. Lynch

Co-Major Professor

Wilson R. Palacios


Criminalization, Disciplinary Policy, Judicial Decision Making, Political Economy, Racial Disparities


This study's purpose is to investigate the expansion of social control efforts in American elementary and secondary school settings, particularly the use of zero-tolerance policies. These policies entail automatic punishments, such as suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to the juvenile and criminal justice systems for a host of school-based infractions. The widespread implementation of zero-tolerance policies and the application of harsh, exclusionary sanctions have intensified over the past decade. Numerous studies have documented this rise; however, there has been little effort to explore the explanation of the expansion of school-based social controls.

A potential explanation is found in the application of political economic theories in relation to the increased use and evolving nature of social control in the neoliberal era of capitalism. As such, the current study employs a new theoretical approach, which utilizes neoliberal theory combined with theoretical components from existing metanarratives in the literature. By using this new approach in regard to school-based social control, the connection between the expansion of social control of the working class and marginal populations in the criminal justice process, and the retraction of the social safety nets that characterized neoliberal capitalism is extended to the explanation of trends in the social control of school-based infractions.

This investigation incorporates a qualitative, empirical exploration of how these school criminalization efforts have been implemented and legitimized by the state, specifically through the authority of the courts. By engaging in textual analysis, the jurisprudential intent that informs both the relevant state appellate and Supreme Court decisions was subjected to legal exegeses to determine how and if the judicial system legitimizes the practice of zero tolerance in schools, which are consistent with neoliberal ideals. In addition, a quantitative component, to this overall study, examined nationally representative School Survey on Crime and Safety (SSOCS) data across three academic years to determine if school security measures and disciplinary actions were increasingly applied to marginal populations in elementary and secondary schools over time.

Results from the qualitative inquiry revealed that in the overwhelming majority of court cases evaluated, the courts decided in a fashion that reinforces zero-tolerance policies as legitimate neoliberal social controls in schools. Several theoretically relevant themes emerged from the jurisprudential intent, which are transferable for further theory development and future research. Quantitative findings reveal that, over time, the total disciplinary actions and removals from school without continued educational services are disproportionately applied to schools with the highest percentages of minority students and students who reside in high-crime areas compared to schools with the lowest percentages of minority students and students who reside in high-crime areas. Conversely, the results also reveal that the average use of school security measures (e.g., metal detectors, access controls, security guards, etc.) are more likely to be used in schools with the lowest percentages of minority students than schools with the highest percentages of minorities over time.

These results are discussed in detail, and recommendations for changes in school policies and practices are offered, while being mindful of evidence-based best practices that may serve as viable alternatives to the zero-tolerance policies currently being used. Avenues for future research and theory development are also outlined.