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Close to Home: Zero tolerance or restorative justice?

Apr 29, 2014

from the article by David Sortino:

The Obama administration's push to eliminate a zero-tolerance discipline philosophy in American public schools was 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 Eric 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 the administration's anti-zero-tolerance presentation is a more concrete approach that teachers and/or school personnel could adopt as an alternative to zero tolerance, such as restorative justice.

I first experienced the restorative justice philosophy when I worked as a consultant in juvenile corrections. Victims would meet perpetrators with the intention of creating a sense of emotional empathy between the two parities. That is, the perpetrator's meeting in a face-to-face conversation with the victim, an actual living, breathing person, hopefully caused the perpetrator to no longer commit crimes against others.

Statistics from one study describes the effectiveness of restorative justice and recidivism. In the first year, the restorative justice offenders had a recidivism rate of 15 percent compared to 38 percent for the probation group. In the second year the respective rates were 28 percent and 54 percent. By the third year, the rates were 35 percent and 66 percent.

gain, the problem with the White House recommendation is that it did not specifically recommend restorative justice as a successful alternative to zero tolerance, which in my opinion is an appropriate solution. Brain scientists have known for years 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 in turn 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.

A Washington state study showed that 75 percent of adult offenders had spent time in juvenile hall in their earlier lives. Was zero tolerance or some other ineffective school discipline part of the cause of such a high percentage of recidivism?

A Colorado high school, which has 75 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunches, showed a dramatic decrease in school violence after it enacted restorative justice as a form of discipline — from 263 physical violence incidences in 2007 to 31 in 2013-14.

Read the full article.

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