I remember my high school back in Chicago taking a zero-tolerance approach to discipline. Every rule infraction was punished with at least one demerit. If a student received four demerits within a two-week span, he or she was given a detention.
As those days have faded into the past, I’ve come to wonder whether this approach was the best way to create a safe and supportive school environment.
I learned a lot more about the school discipline experiences of other youth during my internship at the ACLU of Pennsylvania in the spring of 2017. I came to understand that “zero tolerance” approaches to discipline do not address the root causes of school-based conflict. They often exacerbate racial disparities in punishment and have collateral consequences, like a greater risk for disengagement from school, dropping out, chronic underemployment, and future involvement with the justice system.
What does create a safe and supportive school environment? And what sort of disciplinary system is just and fair to everyone involved in student conflicts? In a growing number of schools, one answer has been restorative approaches.
What are Restorative Approaches?
To find out more about restorative approaches, I spoke with Reverend Karen Lynn Morton, a long-time restorative justice trainer in the Chicago community with the organization Community Organizing and Family Issues. Morton is also Executive Director of the Woman of God’s Design Ministry and coordinator of a parent-run school-based program called the Austin Peace Center.
Morton explained the approach:
“Restorative Justice (RJ) is a philosophy, set of practices, and mindset that addresses injustice (most often a law or rule broken) by thinking about the harms, needs and obligations of all of those involved. RJ practices are structured differently from systems we are used to in that they allow for a safe space for people to express their vulnerabilities, strengths, challenges and accomplishments. As a result, the process humanizes all those involved and promotes deeper bonds, a sense of responsibility and healing for all involved – offender, victim, anyone else affected by the crime/offensive action. Healing is accomplished most often when all those affected are involved and meet to discuss and decide how best to repair the harm by addressing those needs and obligations.”
She insists that restorative methods are much more than just “feel-good” approaches. Instead, they find practical solutions that meet students' needs while also promoting community safety and well-being.
Restorative approaches teach responsibility, repair harm, and help prevent a repeat of negative behaviors using methods like peace circles, peer juries, and community service. These are alternatives to zero-tolerance practices.
What Types of Conflicts Can Restorative Approaches Address?
“I don’t believe there is anything that a restorative approach can’t handle, if the parties are willing to engage in the process,” said Rev. Morton. She explained that the success of the process, no matter how egregious the violation, would depend on the timing of the approach. “There are times that a crime is committed and law enforcement may be called in; in that case, it may be in the best interest of all the parties to wait until things have cooled off.”
One of the biggest flaws of exclusionary discipline is the lack of reintegration of the student into the classroom. Students who are given an out-of-school suspension or expulsion often lose time for academic instruction, and they struggle to catch up to their peers when they return to the classroom. Restorative approaches address reintegration and healing in ways that exclusionary measures cannot. Restorative approaches send a message that the student is still a part of the school community, which can become a deterrent to dropping out and disengagement.
How are Restorative Approaches Just and Fair?
A just and fair discipline system ought to help the school community discover the truth about what happened and assign the appropriate interventions to prevent the same conflicts from happening again. Morton believes that restorative approaches “find out the truth by first creating a safe enough space for engaging in meaningful dialog.” They contain an element of due process.
Peace circles, for example, get students and teachers together to discuss what happened, who was involved, and why. Victims of student conflict are also present, giving them the opportunity to voice how the incident affected them. After meaningful dialog, educators and students can determine the appropriate interventions together, creating accountability not only with the teachers but also with a student’s classmates.
What Makes Restorative Approaches Work?
Implementing restorative approaches requires time and commitment. It is not enough to say that schools will abandon zero-tolerance approaches.
Chicago Public Schools adopted restorative approaches in its 2007 student code of conduct. In a 2012 report, the High HOPES Campaign (Healing Over the Punishment of Expulsions and Suspensions) pointed out that the district made little city-wide progress in incorporating restorative approaches into school communities. However, the few schools that fully implemented the program experienced a substantial drop in suspensions, misconduct rates, and student arrests. One school, Fenger High, began a restorative program in response to violence. Cases of misconduct dropped by 59%, and arrests declined by 69%, during that school year.
The Campaign recommended that the district set a goal of reducing suspensions by 40% in the coming school year, work to overcome barriers to the implementation of restorative programs by developing a district-wide plan for rolling out the programs, and create a full-time restorative justice program in each school. It estimated that the budget for such an expansion would be much smaller than the annual budget of the district’s safety office.
In February of 2015, the Chicago Tribune reported that some educators felt they did not have the adequate resources to successfully implement the programs centered on restorative practices.
Today, there are more restorative justice programs in Chicago schools. The results are promising. A recent case study of the restorative program at Uplift Community High School, begun in 2014, found that 98% of youth referred to peer conferencing felt that restorative justice helped them take responsibility for their actions. Some 281 fewer days of suspension were issued and 70% of the 235 students who participated in the program were referred to it only once that school year.
According to Morton, the success of restorative approaches depends on the “competency and buy-in of the people implementing the process.” Without intensive training, substantial resources and a community approach that incorporates parents, educators, and students, restorative approaches cannot reach their full potential of improving student understanding and school climate.
Samuel Muñeton Jr. is a former intern at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. He is a student at The University of Pennsylvania.