Zero-Tolerance Policy vs. Restorative Practices

by Deanna Kollar, Rowan University

The word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina, which means teaching or instructing. It is ironic, however, that most forms of discipline in today’s public schools lack learning opportunities and take away from valuable instruction time.

Dwanna Nicole and Kevin Gilbert presented at the NEA Student Leadership Conference (SLC) in Washington D.C this past June. The two discussed the expanding use of zero-tolerance procedures that are being used to handle various disciplinary problems in schools. These zero-tolerance approaches include out-of-school suspension, expulsion, and referral to alternative schools. While its intent is to make schools safe against violence, these practices have been used to discipline non-threatening behaviors; for example, students have been taken out of school for minor dress code violations, calling out in class, self-defense, and even tardiness.

Once students are removed from the classroom, they usually begin to fall behind in their academic work. Upon returning to school, a student may struggle to catch up and feel embarrassed around peers, which could result in more behavioral issues. Furthermore, when teachers suspend their students, a feeling of mistrust takes hold in the teacher-student relationship. This can also disrupt the learning environment, decreasing the student’s chance of academic success. With the possibility of the student developing negative feelings toward school, a vicious cycle has the opportunity to begin.

Another major issue with the zero-tolerance policy is it does not allow discussion to take place after an offense is committed because the misbehaving student is sent home without a deep understanding of what he/she did wrong, and this does not allow the student to grow socially or emotionally. Instead, they are placed in an isolated environment that restricts them from reaching the root of the initial problem. Meanwhile, any victims of the offense receive no closure or resolution. They too are only given a temporary break from the situation. Once an offender returns to school, the problem typically begins again and involves those from the previous offense.

Schools should take a step back from zero-tolerance policies and consider restorative practices. According to Nicole and Gilbert, restorative practices can build positive relationships between students and educators and create a sense of community that can prevent and address conflicts and inappropriate behavior. These practices force students that commit an offense to take accountability for their actions, recognize their behavior as inappropriate, make amends with anyone harmed by their actions, repair physical damage, and make changes to avoid repeating the offense. Restorative practices include teaching students problem-solving and self-control skills, holding conferences with all parties involved in an offense, student participation in meaningful community service projects, forming peer juries and mediation, and teaching communication through affective statements and questions. All of these methods involve open communication that can address the direct cause of misbehavior or violations.

I urge preservice teachers to look into restorative practices that they can integrate into their future classrooms. This can decrease behavioral problems, as well as the amount of times they may need to resort to their school’s zero-tolerance policies. Of course, serious breaches of conduct can arise that call for a student’s immediate removal in order to keep students and staff safe; however, many infringements can and should be approached without the use of zero-tolerance practices. Discipline should serve as a tool towards achieving a more productive school environment, rather than disrupt the learning process.


What are your opinions on these policies? Have you experienced either firsthand or witnessed them in your own student teaching?

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