John Bailie, MRPYC
International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP), Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA
School safety and how to achieve it has been a central focus of educators and the concerned public for the last two decades. From the pandemic urban violence of the 80’s to the shocking suburban school massacres of the 90’s and early 21st century, the problem of school safety has now touched the lives of all Americans. Until recently, solutions have mostly relied on harsh and ever more punitive sanctions for crime and misbehavior. However, research has shown that the success of such approaches has been negligible at best and counterproductive at worst. Emerging approaches that focus on building stronger relationships, positive school cultures and misbehavior as harm done to relationships are showing increasing promise. Though solutions to this problem may be complex and their effectiveness sometimes difficult to measure empirically, the goal has always been relatively clear; lower incidence of violence and higher perception of safety.
The phrase "zero tolerance" first came to public consciousness in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Originally a term used to describe new harsher penalties being inflicted on drug offenders, the idea of "zero tolerance" quickly spread to many areas of public policy. (Skiba, 2000) By the mid-1990’s school violence had become a hot topic for educators and politicians alike. Fueled by a popular "get tough on crime" mentality, this experimental criminal justice idea made the jump to schools when President Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. This new law now made it a national policy that any student caught with a firearm in school would face a mandated one-year expulsion and referral to the criminal justice system. (Skiba, 2000) This approach later expanded at the local level to include mandated suspension and expulsion a wide range of much less serious behaviors. Overall, the idea was that educators and the institutions they represented needed to send a clear message to students that certain behaviors would no longer be tolerated and that sanctions for such behavior would be swift, unavoidable and harsh. No more games. Sounds good. Is it working? Sadly, it is not. Some say it has actually made the situation worse.
Since the most common weapon of zero tolerance advocates has been student suspension and expulsion, one would expect that the more these sanctions are employed the safer such a school would become. This assumption has been quite simple to observe as most schools already track this sort of discipline data. Unfortunately, the only consistent outcome for students receiving these sanctions has been found to be more and harsher sanctions in the future. (Skiba, 2000) This suggests that over-reliance on these approaches may be actually contributing to future misbehavior. Even worse, use of these sanctions has been shown to be significantly biased against students of lower socioeconomic status and minorities, especially African Americans. (Skiba, Michael, & Nardo, 2000)
After many years of experience with zero-tolerance and a growing body of evidence that it has not worked, it is surprising that major national education organizations still seem either supportive or ambivalent about it’s place in education. (Boylan & Weiser, 2002) While there is still broad official support for these policies there also seems to be a growing sense that other approaches to school safety beyond punitive measures are needed. Newer policy positions, like that of those of the American Association of School Administrators and National Association of School Psychologists refer to ideas such as improving "school climate" and "positive behavioral supports." (Boylan & Weiser, 2002)
If empirical examination of the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies has been fairly simple yet discouraging, examining the effectiveness of newer ideas such as "school climate" and connectedness has been complex yet promising. Where zero-tolerance was concerned mostly with institutional control and sanctions, these new approaches focus on interpersonal relationships, positive communal pressure and restoration in the wake of harm.
For researchers examining these approaches, deciding how to measure inherently amorphous ideas such as "climate" or "connectedness" can be difficult. While most studies have by needs begun with a discussion of what these terms even mean, there is growing agreement that "school climate" includes things such as perception of fairness in discipline, interpersonal respectfulness and attention to safety issues. (Wilson, 2004) There is also general agreement that "connectedness" involves a student’s sense belonging, commitment to and being care for by peers and staff. (Wilson, 2004) Measurement of these factors has relied heavily on surveys crafted to gauge their perceptions and attitudes toward school and peers. Proponents of strategies relying heavily on these factors assume that creating more positive climates and stronger relationships and connectedness will lead to better behavior, health and other outcomes for students. Research has been supportive of this assumption.
School climate is emerging a as a key variable in the creation of safer schools. Dimensions such as perception of fairness, feelings of safety and emotional support are being found to be positively related to student satisfaction with school. (Samdal, Nutbeam, Wold, & Kannas, 1998) Other measures of the effect of positive school climate have found it to be predictive of high academic achievement. (Bulach, Malone, & Castleman, 1995) As to whether climate alone is predictive of safety or violence the relationship remains unclear. (Wilson, 2004)
Connectedness has been found to be a much stronger predictor of safety. Studies have found levels of connectedness highly predictive of decreased risk of violence and aggression. (Wilson, 2004) Also, connectedness also seems to have a powerful effect on health factors. Data from the well-publicized Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health shows that high levels of connectedness were associated with decreased drug, alcohol and cigarette use as well as better academic performance and participation in extracurricular activities. (Bonny, Britto, Klosterman, Hornung, & Slap) Though the causal connections are admittedly unclear, future study would do well to continue to focus on such a potentially powerful factor.
A last area of research has focused on responses to misbehavior and conflict as primarily relational rather than institutional matters per se. "Restorative justice" has further refined this approach by denoting the key stakeholders in any crime or incident as the victim, offender and family and friends. (McCold & Wachtel, 2002) McCold and Wachtel also found that as more of these three stakeholders were included in processes that allowed them to directly engage with one another, the more satisfying and fair the process was felt to be. Levels of satisfaction and fairness increase further above traditional justice processes as the interaction between these stakeholders becomes less mediated and more direct. (McCold, 2003) Though this study included mostly criminal justice and not school data, the findings support the general assumptions of the of school connectedness and climate research. It also constitutes a direct attack on the presumed effectiveness of excluding and segregating those who commit crimes or misbehave. The Community Service Foundation’s experimental alternative schools in Southeastern Pennsylvania function entirely on these principles and are termed "restorative milieus." Youth immersed in such an environment for more than 3 months have been found to be significantly less likely to re-offend and also show increases in pro-social attitudes and self-esteem. (McCold, 2002) Other studies are examining promising programs that teach students skills such as cooperative approaches to conflict with peers. (Roberts, White, & Yeomans, 2004)
Approaches to school safety and violence that rely on climate, connectedness and relationships clearly hold promise. Few would argue that those things aren’t even good and healthy in and of themselves. As to whether they can be seen as a replacement for widely accepted zero-tolerance policies, the future is uncertain. The next step for research in this area will be establishing clear causal connections between these new approaches and decreased school violence. This effort may live or die on the ability of proponents to clearly define terms and refine approaches. Though zero-tolerance seems to be failing in its mission, it is appealingly simple in its rhetoric and implementation. Any approach that focuses on more holistic factors such as institutional climate and relationships will almost certainly involve more complexity. However, the ability to distill an approach into simple digestible concepts is not to be underestimated. The educational establishment’s continued reliance on zero-tolerance despite poor results bears testimony to that.
Links to further research:
Formal research study on the effectiveness of restorative practices in alternative schools administered by CSF Buxmont, IIRP’s demonstration program. These schools operate entirely on restorative practices. View the report at:
A follow-up on the research above that tracked the students several years post-discharge:
Article on how three initial pilot schools implemented restorative practices and the dramatic decrease in disciplinary problems.
An update after many more schools have taken on restorative practices.
Summative report on restorative practices in schools research, part I:
Summative report on restorative practices in schools research, part II:
What is Restorative Practices?
Bonny, A., Britto, M., Klosterman, B., Hornung, R., & Slap, G. (2005). School disconnectedness: Identifying adolescents at risk. Pediatrics. Retrieved May 20, 2005, from http://scholar.google.com/url?sa=U&q=http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/106/5/1017%3Fck%3Dnck
Boylan, E. M., & Weiser, J. (2002). Survey of key educational stakeholders on zero tolerance student discipline policies. Newark, NJ:
Education Law Center.
Bulach, C.R., Malone, B., & Castleman, C. (1995). An investigation of variables related to student achievement. Mid-western Educational Researcher, 8(2), 23-29.
McCold, P. (2002). Evaluation of a restorative milieu: CSF Buxmont school/day treatment programs 1999-2001. Paper presented at the American Society of Criminology annual meeting, November 13-16, 2002, Chicago, Illinois.
McCold, P. (2003). A survey of assessment research on mediation and conferencing. In L. Walgrave (Ed.). Repositioning restorative justice (pp. 67-120). Devon, UK: Willan Publishing.
McCold, P. & Wachtel, T. (2002). Restorative justice theory validation. In E. Weitekamp and H-J. Kerner (Eds.). Restorative justice: Theoretical foundations (pp.110-142). Devon, UK: Willan Publishing.
Roberts, L., White, G., & Yeomans, P. (2004). Theory development and evaluation of Project Win. Journal of Early Adolescence, 24(4), 460-483.
Samdal, O., Nutbeam, D., Wold, B., & Kannas, L. (1998). Achieving health and educational goals through schools – a study of the importance of the school climate and the student’s satisfaction with school. Health Education Research, 13(3), 383-397.
Skiba, R. J. (2000). Zero tolerance, zero evidence: An analysis of school disciplinary practice (Policy Research Report No. SRS2). Bloomington, IN: Indiana Education Policy Center.
Skiba, R. J., Michael, R.S., & Nardo, A.C. (2000). The color of discipline: Sources of racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment (Policy Research Report No. SRS1). Bloomington, IN: Indiana Education Policy Center.
Wilson, D. (2004). The interface of school climate and connectedness and relationships with aggression and victimization. Journal of School Health, 74(7), 293-299.