School-Based Restorative Justice as an Alternative to Punitive Zero-Tolerance Policies

Sean Wilson I Criminal Justice I Policy & Research I August 13th, 2013

Many schools in America have been focused on controlling student behavior with punitive punishments due to a misinformed belief that schools throughout America are unsafe because of issues with violence, drug-related problems, and gang activity. As a result, punitive zero-tolerance policies such as the Gun-Free Schools Act (GFSA) of 1994 and later versions have been implemented to keep schools safe from gun violence. Although the GFSA of 1994 called for mandatory one-year expulsion of students committing firearm offenses, many states expanded the use of this policy in application. As a result, the number of students suspended has risen, and students punished by zero-tolerance policies often are excluded from educational instruction, which can increase the likelihood of future offending and decrease the likelihood of graduation from high school. Sweeping children into a punitive low-level offender system is a harsh punishment because such policies have no deterrent effect, and they do not make schools any safer or healthier. Similar to most criminal justice policies, zero-tolerance policies disproportionately affect Blacks and other minorities. Instead of educating children, schools are pushing children out of schools and into the juvenile justice system and adult courts. Texas issues Class C misdemeanors to students for trivial behavior, such as disorderly conduct, disrespecting a teacher, absenteeism, etc, which forces students to report to municipal court or justice court for punishment. Punishment for a Class C misdemeanor can be a fine up to $500. The belief that retribution is more important than rehabilitation and treatment is an attribute of the disciplinary ideology that many policy-makers subscribe to, and which spearheads the school-to-prison pipeline. Thus, restorative justice-oriented policies and programs are needed to deal with misbehavior in an effective and productive manner. Several states throughout the United States have successfully implemented restorative justice programs and have seen significant improvements in suspension rates, graduation rates, and school performance; and, most important, children are kept out of the juvenile justice system. This article will critically analyze punitive zero-tolerance policies and recommend more effective and healing restorative justice disciplinary solutions within schools.

Zero-Tolerance Policies in Schools and Issues with Zero-Tolerance Policies

Zero-Tolerance policies first emerged in 1990 when the 1990 Gun Free School Zone Act (GFSZA) was passed, which prohibited possession of a firearm within 1000 feet of a school, and which became a federal felony (Stinchcomb, 2006). These acts were passed as a response to school administrators' fears of increasing violence, drug problems and firearm issues (Simson, 2012). The act was eventually struck down in 1995 by the Supreme Court for exceeding congressional authority, and it was later replaced by the Gun Free Schools Act (GFSA), which was implemented in October 1995. The difference between the GFSZA of 1990 and the 1995 GFSA is that the 1995 act required that Congress avoid direct involvement with the act by passing requirements on to states in a way that states had to comply with the policy to receive federal funding for secondary education. The requirements of the GFSA are that states receiving funding must pass legislation that mandates a minimum one-year expulsion of students bringing weapons, specifically firearms and bombs, to school. Knives or other weapons are not included in the legislation, although school districts are able to include such weapons into the one-year expulsion category. In addition, school districts must also adopt a zero-tolerance for anyone who brings a specified weapon to school. If this occurs, the student is to be referred to the criminal justice system or the juvenile justice system. Therefore, every state that receives federal funding under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is required to pass a law that requires a one-year expulsion for any student who brings a firearm to school. Although researchers have not been able to identify a link between the GSFA and the expansion of zero-tolerance polices throughout schools in the United States, zero-tolerance policies have expanded dramatically after the GSFA was passed. For example, the National Center for Educational Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 94% of schools in the nation have zero-tolerance policies implemented for firearms, 91% for weapons other than firearms, 87% for alcohol, 88% for drugs, 79% for tobacco, and 79 % for violent behavior (Kaufman et al., 1999, as cited in, Stinchcomb, 2006). These statistics only represent behaviors in schools subjected to mandatory punishments. However, several schools often punish less dangerous behavior in the same manner that dangerous activities are punished. For example, a school district in Mississippi is required to report any disruptive or assaultive behavior to the police (Henault, 2001 p. 550, as cited in, Stinchcomb, 2006). Thus, zero-tolerance policies have exacerbated in school districts throughout the nation, which has resulted in zero-tolerance policies implemented in an unchecked manner, granting school districts the ability to enforce such policies with little discretion. As a result, many children have been suspended and expelled from schools for minor infractions. Data shows that the number of students suspended from school at least once has increased substantially - 1.7 million students throughout the nation were suspended at least once in 1974, compared to 3.1 million in 1998, and 3.3 million in 2006 (Planty, 2009). The bulk of the students suspended from schools throughout the nation from 1974 to 2006 were suspended or expelled for minor infractions rather than violent offenses that the GFSA was originally meant to target. Many scholars have termed the increasing reliance on suspension and expulsion of students for minor offenses as a net-widening development that steers low-level juveniles into a punitive system that has little to no deterrent effect; also known as the school-to-prison pipeline (Gonzalez, 2012; Stinchcomb, 2006).

The Negative Effects of Zero-Tolerance Policies

Although youth crime has declined over the past two years, and schools are among the safest places for children, school districts seem to remain adamant with imposing harsh punishments on students for minor behavior issues, such as ditching school, arguments with fellow students or teachers, tardiness, noncompliance, and disrespect toward teachers. Examples of students being punished for minor misbehavior include: a seventh grader in West Virginia suspended for three days for sharing cough drops with a classmate, a six-year old in North Carolina was suspended for one day for kissing a classmate, and an 11-year old in South Carolina was suspended for one day for bringing a knife in her lunch box to cut her chicken (Stinchcomb, 2006). Excluding children with behavioral issues from school is supposed to serve as a means to improve the safety and environment of schools, but research shows that removing children from schools can contribute to delinquency (Simson, 2012). It is important that children receive an adequate amount of instructional time in school to improve achievement rates, thus the loss of instructional time in school due to exclusionary policies minimizes the opportunities students have for academic advancement, and it also decreases students' chances of becoming productive members of society in the future (Simson, 2012). In addition, exclusionary policies also place psychological harm on students because punitive punishment often impedes child development learning and minimizes the trust that students have in authority figures, which possibly can increase the likelihood of conflicts between students and teachers.

The purpose of zero-tolerance policies are to improve the school environment and serve as a deterrent for harmful behavior in schools by removing disruptive students from school in an attempt to minimize the rates of misbehavior. However, studies have shown that punitive zero-tolerance policies are not effective, and there is data to prove that schools with higher suspension rates are more likely to have unsatisfactory ratings of school climate, and weak school governance structures and high rates of suspension often lead to higher rates of misbehavior and suspension among students who have been suspended (Simson, 2012). In addition, school suspension and expulsion is associated with a higher likelihood of school dropout and failure to graduate on time, and schools with higher rates of school suspension and expulsion perform poorer on standardized achievement tests (Rausch & Skiba, 2006).

Racial Disparities in School Punishment

Minority overrepresentation in school expulsions and suspensions has been occurring for over 25 years. Various studies of school suspension have found that individuals from lower socioeconomic levels are disproportionately affected by school suspension. Wu et al. (1982) found that students who receive free lunch are more likely to be suspended from school. In addition, Wu et al. (1982) also found that students whose fathers did not have a full-time job were more likely to be suspended than students whose fathers had full time employment. There are no studies that show that students from lower socioeconomic status misbehave in school more than students from higher socioeconomic statuses. However, there is data to show that low-income students are punished differently than students who come from higher income brackets. For example, Brantlinger (1991) interviewed students from high-income and low-income residential areas to determine their reactions to school discipline and school climate. Both groups of students agreed that students from lower income areas were more likely to be unfairly targeted by punitive policies. In addition, there were also differences in the kind of punishment dished out to students, as high-income students were more likely to receive moderate punishments such as seat reassignment and teacher reprimand. Moreover, lower income students were more likely to receive more severe punishments, such as being yelled at in front of class, made to stand in the hall, and subjected to a search of personal belongings.

Minorities are disproportionately punished in schools throughout the nation; however, African American students are over-subjected to exclusionary and punitive consequences for minor misbehavior in school. In 1975, the Children's Defense Fund studied national data on school discipline that was provided by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (Skiba, 2002). The results of the study found that the rates of school suspension exceeded the suspension rates of White students. Suspension rates for black students were three times higher than the suspension rate for white students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels (Skiba, 2002). Since the 70s, the black student suspension rate is 24.3%, which is a 12.5 percentage point increase compared to a 1.1 point increase for white students from 6% to 7.1 %, which amounts to an increase 11 times higher for Blacks than for Whites (Losen, 2013). At one point the black-white gap was 5.7 points, but it has recently grown to over a 17-point difference at the secondary level (Losen, 2013). Black children are not misbehaving more than other students, and black students are not any more threatening than any other racial group of students, but the raw data continues to show that black students continue to be pushed out of schools for trivial reasons. Research has pointed to the reality that black student suspension rates are more directly tied to structural issues within schools rather than behavioral issues associated with black students. For example, the Breaking School Rules study of nearly one million middle school children in Texas by the Council for State Governments Justice Center found that the likelihood of a student being suspended had more to do with school factors than with race, poverty, student demographics, or the student's past behavior (Losen, 2013). Although the study conducted by the Council for State Government Justice Center in Texas believed that school factors played a bigger role in determining the likelihood of suspension, many would, in fact, argue that social demographic variables could have played a subtextual role that was not accounted for or overlooked in this study.

Restorative Justice in Schools

Restorative justice practices in schools are not a new phenomenon. Several school districts throughout the U.S. have implemented various restorative justice practices in their schools, for various reasons. The implementation of such practices in schools to address the negative impact of punitive zero- tolerance policies has increased exponentially throughout the last five years (Gonzalez, 2012). The first restorative justice practices in schools were used in the early 1990s in Australia. Since the 90s, several scholars have looked at restorative justice in schools as a whole school approach, which focuses on inclusion rather than exclusion when addressing student behavioral problems, school safety, student drop out, and retention. School-based restorative justice is similar to traditional restorative justice programs because conferences, mediations, and circles are used to repair relationships between teachers, other students, school administrators, and the school community (Gonzalez, 2012). Therefore, restorative justice in schools focuses on reintegrating students into to school community after misbehaving rather than excluding students from the school environment, which can result in disengagement, recidivism, and school push out. Some scholars have supported restorative justice in schools as a productive way to administer school discipline because such practices take into account the multiple actors involved in the disciplinary process, as well as the multiple incidents of harm that may occur when schools have to deal with student behavior (Simson, 2012). In addition, scholars also believe that restorative justices relies on accountability, reintegration, inclusion, community building, and problem-solving skills - all of which are beneficial for schools because they promote a safe and positive environment for students to learn (Simson, 2012). Empirical data has recently shown the effectiveness of school-based restorative justice throughout the nation. For example, the Thelton E. Henderson center for Social Justice at the University of California Berkeley School of Law found positive results from the implementation of a restorative justice program at Cole Middle School in West Oakland, California (Simson, 2012). The results of the study found that the suspension rate of Cole Middle dropped from 50 suspensions per one hundred students to only six suspensions per one hundred students for two years after the restorative justice program at Cole was implemented (Simson, 2012). In addition, students at Cole believed that the restorative justice program was effective in reducing fights and building relationships throughout the school community (Simson, 2012). The International Institute for Restorative practices found positive results in schools both internationally and in the U.S. after implementing restorative practices (Simson, 2012). Professor Thalia Gonzalez conducted a study of schools that implemented restorative practices, and found decreases in suspensions after such practices were implemented (Simson, 2012). North High School in Denver, Colorado reported a decrease of 34% in school suspensions four years after restorative justice practices were implemented. Also, the Denver Public School District reported reductions in out-of-school suspensions after restorative justice was embraced in Denver (Simson, 2012). A report published by the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) focused on West Philadelphia High School, widely known as a "dangerous school" in Pennsylvania, which implemented restorative justice practices in fall 2008. The results after implementing restorative justice practices instead of punitive punishment policies at West Philadelphia High School: a 52% drop in violent acts and serious incidents; the number of students suspended one time dropped from 246 during the 2006-2007 school year to 188 during the 2007-2008 school year; the number of students suspended twice decreased from 116 students suspended in 2006-2007 to 92 students suspended during the 2007-2008 school year; the number students suspended three times decreased from 59 students suspended during the 2006-2007 school year to 55 students suspended during the 2007-2008 school year; and the number of students suspended more than three times dropped from 89 students suspended during the 2006-2007 school year to 53 students suspended during the 2007-2008 school year (IIRP, 2009). Keeping students in school is a way to ensure that more students acquire adequate social skills to function in society, thus improving retention rates, graduation rates, and success during post-secondary education. Restorative justice is effective in schools because restorative practices often help to keep children in school.

Decreased Suspension rates are not the only positive side effect of restorative justice practices in schools because restorative justice focuses on accountability and equal participation amongst victims, offenders, and communities. Also, previously voiceless individuals are given a voice. In regard to discriminatory punishment practices in schools, restorative justice is a way to empower marginalized students who are affected by discriminatory punishment practices by granting them the ability to speak on their experiences. Restorative justice circles and conferences can improve relationships between students and teachers by requiring both parties to speak honestly about their perception of behavior during a confrontation. Teachers are often unable to understand some of the cultural differences of students who come from different backgrounds. As a result, simple defiance from a student can be seen as threatening behavior worthy of punishment. Dialogue amongst students and teachers can prevent a minor disagreement between the two from escalating into an event in need of punishment. Students who believe that their race or ethnic background played a major role in them being punished can voice their concerns, which can result in a teacher reexamining their biases and adjusting their behavior accordingly. Restorative justice practices in school give the marginalized a voice that can lead to better treatment in school for marginalized students. Urban school districts desperately need restorative justice because students in urban environments often deal with various social issues that often get in the way of learning. Thus, such practices can serve as a tool to help students deal with social issues through dialogue. Different schools implement these practices for various reasons; for example, some schools seek to address suspension rates and expulsion rates, while other schools may focus on school safety, student misbehavior, and academic performance. Therefore, it is imperative that school districts interested in developing alternatives to punitive punishment establish an increased value in promoting the development of relationships amongst the school community rather than promoting exclusion from the school community. Furthermore, implementing restorative justice in school districts takes time and effort, so it is extremely important that all members of the school community support a school-wide cultural change.


School-based restorative justice can change the environment of a school and improve academic achievement for students, school safety, and improve the health of the school community. Schools that enforce punitive zero-tolerance polices risk alienating students by suspending and expelling them for offenses that often can be addressed through dialogue used to confront and resolve conflicts. Restorative justice focuses on empowering individuals and school communities through building healthy relationships. Restorative justice practices implemented in schools offers students the ability to voice their opinions and take responsibility for their actions without being pushed out of school. Punitive models for schools have been proven to be ineffective in maintaining safe and effective schools and such models disproportionately target students of color, who often come from lower economic backgrounds. Therefore, restorative justice practices in schools are the only education policy solution for ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

Works Cited

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Gonzalez, T. (2012). Keeping Kids in Schools:Restorative Justice, Punitive Discipline, and the School to Prison Pipeline. Journal of Law and Education , 41 (2), 281.

Henault, C. (2001). Chalk Talk. Journal of Law and Education, 30, 547-553

IIRP. (2009). Improving School Climate Findings From schools implementing restorative practices. Retrieved 07 20, 2013, from

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Skiba, R. J., Michae, R. S., Nardo, A. C., & Peterson, R. L. (2002). The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment. The Urban Review , 34 (4), 1-26.

Stinchcomb, J. B., Bazemore, G., & Riestenberg, N. (2006). Beyond Zero Tolerance: Restoring Justice in Secondary Schools. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice , 4 (2), 123-147.

Wu, S.-C., Pink, W., Crain, R., & Moles, O. (1982). Student Suspension: A Critical Reappraisal. The Urban Review , 14 (4), 245-303.