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Opinion

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.

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In Detroit’s Hamtramck School District – one of the most diverse and disadvantaged in Michigan – discipline referrals in seven schools fell by half after they adopted restorative practices. They trained their school staff in the use of “talking circles” that proactively provide opportunities for students to express themselves and build relationships between one another and with staff.

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Teachers make “affective statements” through which they react to both positive and negative student behavior by clearly expressing their feelings. When dealing with incidents, they put responsibility on students to solve the problems they have created. They ask “restorative questions” which cause students to reflect on how their behavior has affected others and how they are going to “make things right.”

Rather than passively getting punished, students now have real accountability for their actions. Even when incidents are serious enough that students are suspended from school, they return to a restorative conference or circle in which they must face those they have harmed and resolve the issues before going back into the classroom.

Last June, Michael La Porta, principal at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, Pa., dealt with a group of seniors who had vandalized the school shortly before graduation. An outside facilitator organized a restorative conference in which the students heard how their behavior had impacted the custodians, the school administrators, other staff, and their own parents.

The students had an opportunity to share their perspective, express remorse, and participate in deciding how they should compensate for the damage they had caused. In the past they would have been suspended or expelled, but by taking appropriate responsibility for what they did wrong, they were allowed to graduate with their classmates.

As for the fear that restorative practices will fail to deter misconduct, the results speak for themselves. The Bethlehem Area School District, where Freedom High School is located, recently reported the 2011-2012 discipline data – its first year using restorative practices in its two large ethnically diverse high schools. Suspensions for endangerment declined by 64 percent, for insubordination they fell by 59 percent, and suspensions for physical assault on a student were reduced by 75 percent. Suspensions for threats, harassment, and bullying fell by 81 percent, and expulsions dropped 41 percent.

A feeling of connectedness, belonging, and accountability among students and staff creates a friendlier, safer school community. Joseph Roy, Bethlehem’s district superintendent, who had implemented restorative practices at three other high schools before assuming his current leadership role in Bethlehem, explains: “We can’t expel our way to safer schools. We need to build positive relationships.”

Ted Wachtel is president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, an accredited graduate school in Bethlehem, PA.

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