The American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force issued a report in 2008 concluding that severe punishment at schools neither reduces violence nor promotes learning. The report asserts that zero tolerance can actually increase bad behavior, lead to higher dropout rates, and increase referrals to the juvenile justice system for infractions once handled in the schools.
So if zero tolerance isn’t the answer to creating safer, saner schools, what is?
Schools could do what City Springs, an elementary and middle school in Baltimore did. Fights at that school were a daily occurrence when Principal Rhonda Richetta arrived in 2007, but last year they dwindled to zero, according to the school’s discipline data. Suspensions went from 86, in the 2008-2009 school year, to 10 a year later.
What changed is that City Springs now employs a program of "restorative practices" to improve the school climate. Restorative practices are interpersonal processes that can be implemented by school staff. They require no new personnel and no major financial investment. They do, however, require training and a commitment to a different way of thinking and behaving among school leaders, teachers, and other staff.
City Springs isn’t alone in their success story. For six years in a row, West Philadelphia High School was on Pennsylvania’s “Persistently Dangerous Schools” list. Then, in 2008, a program of restorative practices helped reduce the number of violent acts by 52 percent and by 45 percent in the next school year. Sadly the program was discontinued after major changes in school leadership and staff, but this year the school is again undertaking a two-year program to re-implement a restorative practices program, along with several other Philadelphia middle and high schools.