By Ted Wachtel
There are clear signs that "zero tolerance" policies in schools are on the wane nationally.
West Virginia has just proposed changes to the state's student conduct code to discourage suspensions and create "more in-school options to deal with inappropriate behavior." In Colorado, where 100,000 students have been referred to police in the last decade, lawmakers are considering giving educators more discretion over expulsions and police referrals. "I just think it's time to swing back to the middle of the pendulum," says Linda Newell, a Colorado state senator.
Zero tolerance, the policy of punishing any rule infraction regardless of circumstances, was certainly a swing away from the middle. There is no evidence that it ever reduced problems in schools. Instead, it created more. Besides yielding a steady stream of anecdotes for the news media about students suspended for trivial and silly things, it turned too many children into kids with "records."
So zero tolerance was tried and found wanting. Schools also tried enormously expensive technology such as metal detectors and security cameras and found them wanting too. Taxpayers today will not, and should not, stand for spending millions on technological solutions that never worked.
So what is a school district to do? If zero tolerance and technology aren't the answers to creating safer, saner schools, what is?
Well, schools could do what City Springs Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore did. There, suspensions went from 86 in 2008-09 to 10 a year later. Fights at that school were a daily occurrence when Principal Rhonda Richetta arrived in 2007 but last year they dwindled to zero. What changed is that City Springs employs a program of restorative practices to improve the school climate.
That's what works: improving the school climate by investing in people-to-people solutions. Restorative practices, a group of interpersonal processes that can be learned, are an effective solution and require no government programs, no new bureaucracy, no expansion of technology and no large fiscal investment. All that is needed is will and vision.
For six years in a row, West Philadelphia High School was on the PA Department of Education's "Persistently Dangerous Schools" list. Then, in 2008, a program of restorative practices was begun. In one year the number of violent acts decreased by 52 percent. The next year, the number went down by 45 percent from the year before. For the two years that restorative practices were in effect there, the results were apparent and cost effective.
In Detroit's Hamtramck School District—one of the most diverse and disadvantaged in Michigan—discipline referrals were cut in half at seven schools after restorative practices were implemented.
Restorative practices are an emerging social science. The goal is to empower people to find their own solutions, resolve conflicts, foster healthy relationships and build social capital. In restorative practices, staff and students learn to resolve issues collaboratively, and students learn to take responsibility for their actions. The philosophy is simple. People respond best when you do things with them and not to them or forthem. Restorative practice gives students responsibilities. It combines high expectations with lots of support.
This is not permissiveness. Wrongdoers are held responsible for their actions. Solutions are arrived at collaboratively, generating buy-in from people involved, including victims. As restorative practices are learned and applied, the school climate changes for the better.
Nor is this an easy path for students. Student offenders often find restorative practices more demanding than being suspended. I've had many say to me, "Couldn't you just punish me, please?" Restorative practices force students to deal with the impacts of their actions. Suspensions, by contrast, are passive and require no reflection at all.
Restorative processes range from the formal, which require training, preparation and time, to the informal, which are simple and practical enough to become second nature. But at the heart is the concept thatanyone can learn to do it. It is not an expert model. It is spreading to schools around the country and is in use in 55 nations around the world.
There is a simple reason for that. It's what works.
Ted Wachtel is president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, a fully accredited graduate school, in Bethlehem, PA.