The Obama administration’s recent press release concerning the elimination of a zero tolerance discipline philosophy in American public schools is long overdue.
Zero tolerance is a tool that became popular in the 1990s, supporting uniform and swift punishment for offenses such as truancy, smoking or possession of a weapon. Violators could lose classroom time and even be saddled with a criminal record. The recommendations encouraged schools to ensure that all school personnel be trained in classroom management, conflict resolution and approaches to de-escalate classroom disruptions.
According to Attorney General Holder, “the problem with a zero tolerance philosophy is that it often stems from well-intentioned zero-tolerance policies that too often injected the criminal justice system into the resolution of problems.” Police have become a more common presence in American schools since the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. However, what was missing from President Obama’s anti-zero tolerance presentation is the promotion of a more concrete approach which could replace the old policy – restorative justice.
Statistics from one study describes the effectiveness of restorative justice on recidivism, the inability for those imprisoned to avoid future crime. In the first year, the restorative justice offenders had a recidivism rate of 15% compared to 38% for the probation group. In the second year the respective rates were 28% and 54% and by the third year the rates were 35% and 66% (JA Justice, 2012).
Brain scientists know the positive effects restorative justice can have on negative behavior, particularly with the adolescent’s brain. Again, one major difference between zero tolerance and restorative justice programs is that the dialogue is a face-to-face discussion about a problem.
Face-to- face meetings stimulate the brain’s hippocampus which stimulates higher centers of the brain, potentially leading to rational thinking. Conversely, zero tolerance is based on law and order or rules that are set up by authority figures, using punishment to obtain adherence.
Therefore, the next time someone suggests using restorative justice versus zero tolerance in our schools, one can turn to a Colorado high school that has shown a great deal of success using restorative justice as their principal discipline policy. This school, which has 75% of students qualifying for free and/or reduced lunches, showed a dramatic decrease in school violence after it enacted restorative justice as a form of discipline. The school progressed from a high of 263 physical violence incidences in the 2007 – 2008 school year down to 31 for 2013 – 2014! Further, the restorative justice program at the school has shown not only decreased suspension rates, anywhere from 40% to 80%, but has also resulted in a nearly 50% drop in absenteeism and a 60% decrease in tardiness.
In short, the reason the Colorado restorative justice program works is simply because restorative justice is a more evolutionary/rational approach than zero tolerance in dealing with teen violence in schools.
Email: davidsortino @comastcast.net.