A shift away from zero tolerance will improve school discipline

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.

Matt Rourke/AP/file
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.'

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.

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.

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.

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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