Education Policy

Democratizing Schools: Restorative Justice in the Face of Zero Tolerance

You might well have heard of public school environments as places of "zero tolerance," authoritarian in nature, and even comparable to jails or correctional facilities in terms of their disciplinary measures. Tardiness results in an entire lesson missed sitting in study hall; disrupting class earns a whole day of detention; rough-housing might lead to suspension, even expulsion. These punishments only further alienate the offender and do not address the needs of the victim or school community.

Restorative justice is a movement that, in effect, seeks to democratize schools. Though the term "restorative justice" is not yet common in the education system, it has proven its potential to become as ubiquitous of a phenomenon as "zero tolerance" in schools. Restorative practice is a cooperative, community-based approach to discipline: rather than doing justice to or for the offender, it is working with all those involved to repair harm done to the victim or community and establish responsibility for one’s actions. The current educational system does not adequately (if at all) create a sense of belonging or connectedness, instill a sense of responsibility for one’s actions, or effectively address recidivism. Restorative justice offers a platform to imbue these skills in both the administration and students, to create community, and to address the root of the problem in terms of disciplinary measures.

Rather than replacing or over-turning traditional disciplinary measures, restorative justice should be used in conjunction with them. It espouses a simple theory that is cost effective and has drastically reduced suspension and expulsion rates in schools around the nation. Those harmed by an act occurring in a school setting may participate in a circle or conference, taking turns to describe how they were affected by what happened and what role they played in the act. These methods aim to make the offender feel accountable as they listen to the impact of their actions on others. The offenders then decide what actions they can take to address the victim and community harmed by their act. In essence, they dole out their own punishment, but in a controlled environment with all affected parties present.

Though the process may seem more time consuming than sending a disruptive student away, studies have proven that even a short five- or 10-minute community building circle in the classroom can lead to a more productive learning environment for the remainder of the school semester. Interestingly enough, students who have reputations for disciplinary problems have been effectively incorporated in the training process once a school has decided to move forward in implementing restorative justice measures. Having a stake in the project, they are among its biggest proponents, engaging in and promoting restorative practices among the student population. Staff members in schools that have implemented restorative measures have mentioned an increased feeling of community throughout the school. One could imagine the potential effect of such an approach, had it been implemented prior to the perpetration of violent and deadly assaults on certain school campuses in the U.S.

What can be done now to further promote restorative justice in schools nationwide? Entities such as the state and national legislature, departments of education, and even publicly-funded centers in alternative dispute resolution can make it a public priority as well as help find and allocate funding to program implementation, training, and evaluation. Interested parents, school administrators, and teachers can promote restorative programs within their districts by becoming more informed, seeking funding from the aforementioned sources, and volunteering time and effort to the implementation of a restorative program.

Restorative measures offer life-long skills for social engagement and allow schools to become more progressive educational institutions, rather than authoritarian jail-like environments. Let’s teach the future how to solve their problems together and not alienate children into a life on the periphery.

Side note: 
Once a school or district is interested, there are a number of resources and examples to draw upon for funding a training program for the administration and teachers. Some examples include a state’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Council or Department of Education, local youth serving organizations, substance abuse program funding, federal and state legislative funding, and other public grants. Organizations such as Restorative Solutions (based in Colorado) and Educators for Social Responsibility (joined by the New York Board of Education to create the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program) provide information, training, and assistance to interested school administrations. One can also look to successful examples such as those in Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Minnesota where restorative justice has become a well established school phenomenon. Each of these is described in more detail in Karp, David R. and Breslin, Beau (2001). “Restorative Justice in School Communities.” Youth Society. December 2001. Vol. 33; No. 2. pp. 249-272. Available online at:

Agnes Sekowski

Agnes Sekowski is a second-year dual degree student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. She is completing an internship at the Center for Public Policy Dispute Resolution at the UT School of Law.


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