In the 1990s I served as principal of a countywide alternative high school located on the campus of Atlantic Cape Community College. The 1990s saw the beginning of the get tough/zero tolerance movement in school discipline. I remember giving a presentation to a group of New Jersey school superintendents about the alternative high school and urging school leaders to rethink zero tolerance policies. One superintendent remarked “Zero tolerance works. We don’t need alternative schools. We have prisons, and they work just fine.”
It was around this same time that policymakers enacted the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994, which established a zero tolerance policy toward weapons and crime in schools. A few years earlier Joe Clark, principal of Eastside High in Paterson, had appeared on the cover of Time magazine holding a baseball bat and championing the get-tough cause. Clark’s zero tolerance approach was even praised by then President Ronald Reagan. School boards and administrators soon began applying this same zero tolerance rationale to other school discipline issues, leading to an era of exclusionary suspensions that has spanned the last 25 years.
Those 25 years have shown how wrong that superintendent was. About 3.5 million students are suspended each year in American public schools. The traditional approach to discipline — and the approach still used in most schools — is retributive. This approach excludes students in a variety of methods — in-school, out-of-school, alternative school, and expulsion — to address problematic behaviors. Extensive research has demonstrated retributive discipline and suspension lead to decreased attendance and a diminished sense of student engagement with the school, an increased dropout rate, and an increase in the achievement gap between Caucasian and African American students. Retributive discipline is a catalyst to increasing the number of youth who enter the school-to-prison pipeline. Moreover, studies have also demonstrated that when problem students are removed from schools, schools do not become safer or more orderly.
Retributive discipline doesn’t work
If retributive discipline has been shown to be ineffective, what can school personnel do instead to ensure safety and a school culture that is conducive to learning? In 2014, former U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan stated, “The need to rethink and redesign school discipline practices is long overdue.”
A rather recently developed and research-based approach that some American schools have adopted is known as restorative practice, which has been used in the penal system, under the name of restorative justice, to reduce criminal behavior and recidivism. The core philosophy of restorative practice in schools involves repairing the relationship between the offender and the recipient of the harm when an offense is committed and improving the relationships between students and school staff. Restorative practices involve the adoption of a new paradigm based upon moral learning, shared dialogue, mutual respect, community involvement, and acts of apology and forgiveness. While students are still suspended in schools that utilize restorative practices, they are suspended far less frequently and often as a last resort.
In advocating that schools adopt restorative practices, Judy Hostetler Mullet writes, “By focusing on the harm done to relationships, restorative justice practitioners view discipline as an opportunity to understand the relational nature of misbehavior, mend relationships, and make restitution. Restorative discipline offers a collaborative approach steeped in inquiry-based methodology that is ripe for further experimentation and research.”
What can school leaders do to move from zero tolerance to a restorative practices-based culture? First, understand that the changing of a school culture is a long-term process that involves buy-in from all key stakeholders, including school boards, administrators, teachers, parents, community members, and most important, the students, who should be engaged as leaders in developing and sustaining restorative practice; address staff skepticism and build trust. Second, a shared vision supportive of restorative practices must be established. Third, extensive training needs to be provided to all members of the school community; build capacity by sharing best practices and celebrating successes. Fourth, focus on the five Rs — relationships, respect, responsibility, repair, and reintegration. Fifth, forget about a sixth R — retribution.
The movement toward an inclusive and restorative justice-based culture in New Jersey schools won’t be quick or easy. But nothing worthwhile is.