School discipline is complex. Trying to balance both the inherent right to learn of one student and the inherent right of safety for other students can easily drive policy to extremes.
Zero-tolerance policies – which have been in place since the 1980s – focus on correcting even minor infractions so as to prevent further crime from the perpetrator and discourage crime from other citizens. It stems from the “broken windows theory” – which suggests that communities thrive peacefully when minor infractions are punished. For example, if a man is punished for breaking a window, neighbors won’t be inclined to repeat his mistake, and he will be less inclined to compound the infraction by robbing the home the window sits in.
This approach has been successful in quickly ending a misbehavior, creating a relatively safer environment for classmates, and discouraging repeated offenses from the original student. But these successes of zero-tolerance policies do not come without costs. Punishing student infractions with suspension – no matter how small the offense – is directly linked to higher dropout rates and poorer academic performance, and it often creates rigid bounds that don’t give administrators much wiggle room in marginal cases. Zero-tolerance policies are what issued the five year old suspension for imaginary bomb-play.
A concept called “restorative justice” seeks a different approach. Instead of suspending students for small infractions, schools that implement restorative justice focus on repairing the harm done through finding alternatives to suspensions like school service, counseling, or behavior contracts. The goal of this alternative is to keep students in school, give them tools to deal with conflict, and find ways to make restitution for past bad behavior.
In the case of the freshman who threw a punch: He sat in a circle with the student he hit, a counselor, and his own father. In a restorative justice process, students are taught to address their frustration without acting out. They are encouraged to make relationships right with those who were offended, and then they are counseled alongside family members to make changes to prevent another infraction – all while remaining in school.
Schools using restorative justice have experienced breakthroughs on an anecdotal level, but without rigorous, repeated evaluation across multiple school environments, we don’t know what the impacts of restorative justice are across an entire school system. Restorative justice holds promise, but significant questions remain.
So which is better for our students: zerotolerance or restorative justice? We don’t yet know, and it’s worth discussing.
This, and other worthwhile questions regarding innovative ways to serve at-risk student populations, will be the focus of an upcoming panel discussion hosted by Sutherland Institute in Salt Lake City on Nov. 15. For more information about Sutherland events, details about innovative ideas, and opportunities to get involved, visit innovateschool.com.