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A shift away from zero tolerance will improve school discipline (+video)

Zero tolerance for bad behavior is common in American schools, but this policy has often proved ineffective, even harmful to students and schools. The tide is turning. A method that relies on communication between students, teachers, and others improves accountability and school safety.

By Ted Wachtel / September 27, 2012

A Philadelphia police officer is seen outside West Philadelphia High School in Philadelphia March 12, 2007, where a teacher was attacked by three students the week prior. Op-ed contributor Ted Wachtel writes: 'For six years in a row, West Philadelphia High School was on Pennsylvania’s “Persistently Dangerous Schools” list. Then, in 2008, a program of "restorative practices" helped reduce the number of violent acts by 52 percent and by 45 percent in the next school year.'

Matt Rourke/AP/file


Bethlehem, Pa.

As the school year gets under way, teachers and administrators will grapple with how to maintain discipline and ensure safety. New policies and a growing chorus of criticism indicate that harsh “zero tolerance” discipline policies in schools may be on the wane nationally.

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Commentary: Joshua Goodman outlines the challenges facing American schools, and compares them to more successful school systems in other countries.

That’s a good thing: Zero tolerance policies that rely heavily on suspensions and expulsions for most conduct infractions have become commonplace in American schools in recent decades, but they have proved ineffective, even harmful to students and school environments.

School districts are starting to see the light. In June, the Michigan State Board of Education issued a resolution calling for schools “to adopt discipline policies without mandated suspension or expulsion for issues that do not involve weapons.” In May, the Colorado General Assembly passed a “smarter discipline” bill eliminating mandatory expulsion except for firearms, and giving schools more discretion over suspensions. More recently, school districts in Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia altered their codes of conduct to limit suspensions and expulsions.

The American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force issued a report in 2008 concluding that severe punishment at schools neither reduces violence nor promotes learning. The report asserts that zero tolerance can actually increase bad behavior, lead to higher dropout rates, and increase referrals to the juvenile justice system for infractions once handled in the schools.

So if zero tolerance isn’t the answer to creating safer, saner schools, what is?

Schools could do what City Springs, an elementary and middle school in Baltimore did. Fights at that school were a daily occurrence when Principal Rhonda Richetta arrived in 2007, but last year they dwindled to zero, according to the school’s discipline data. Suspensions went from 86, in the 2008-2009 school year, to 10 a year later.

What changed is that City Springs now employs a program of "restorative practices" to improve the school climate. Restorative practices are interpersonal processes that can be implemented by school staff. They require no new personnel and no major financial investment. They do, however, require training and a commitment to a different way of thinking and behaving among school leaders, teachers, and other staff.

City Springs isn’t alone in their success story. For six years in a row, West Philadelphia High School was on Pennsylvania’s “Persistently Dangerous Schools” list. Then, in 2008, a program of restorative practices helped reduce the number of violent acts by 52 percent and by 45 percent in the next school year. Sadly the program was discontinued after major changes in school leadership and staff, but this year the school is again undertaking a two-year program to re-implement a restorative practices program, along with several other Philadelphia middle and high schools.


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