School-wide behavioral management strategies are a trending topic for school officials, teachers, legislators, and parents alike. Everyone has their own ideas about how to keep high school children safe and in line as well as how to handle those who don’t comply. For example, a quick internet search yields a bottomless pit of advice and opinions such as, “1000+ ideas about school discipline on Pinterest”. Nation-wide, the way in which behavior and discipline are approached is a swiftly changing aspect of many educational systems. This topic is of great importance to study further because of its complexity and implications to schools. To that end, the way in which negative student behaviors are handled is a multi-faceted issue as well as a pillar of a school environment that a large role in establishing a school’s culture and climate.


Traditionally, schools are considered formal socializing institutions that are publically mandated to function under a climate of order and organization (Carter, Fine, & Russell, 2014). In order to achieve and maintain order and organization, schools must have a way in which they manage student behavior. This paper serves to examine the shift in United States’ schools behavioral management strategies over the past 20 years, namely from harsh, discriminatory zero tolerance policies to research-based restorative justice policies that focus on support and fostering social and emotional growth among students.

Introduction and evolution of zero-tolerance policies

In the late 1980’s, there was a sudden and urgent need to reevaluate school discipline policies in order to cull drug-possession and gang-related activities in schools. This need led to the adoption of “Zero-tolerance” policies in public schools, nation-wide. Zero-tolerance refers to “policies which deal out severe punishment for all offenses, no matter how minor, ostensibly in an effort to treat all offenders equally in the spirit of fairness and intolerance of rule-breaking” (Skiba and Peterson, 1999). These policies, however, were not borne out of the realm of educational and developmental research but instead out of state and federal government’s response to drug use and trafficking in and into the United States, respectively. In the early 1980’s, these governments adapted “Zero-tolerance” policies that authorized the search and seizure of any and all forms of transportation that were suspected of carrying drugs. After being applied to drug enforcement with relative success, these policies expanded outward into multiple federal and state disciplines including environmental pollution, homelessness, sexual harassment, and lastly, school discipline involving drug possession and gang-related activities (Skiba and Peterson, 1999).

By the early 1990’s, these zero tolerance policies were beginning to be phased out of other legal realms but continued to expand in public education as many school boards extended these policies to include infractions ranging from dress code violations and school disruption to drugs and violence, and were often carried out in the forms of suspension, expulsion, and referral to juvenile justice agencies for rule violations. The use of these policies only continued to increase in scope and severity throughout the 1990’s exacerbated by the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act was issued and rash of 60 weapon related incidents that occurred throughout the decade, including the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999.

Zero-tolerance: Limitations and data

However, although many policy makers and school officials embraced the use of zero tolerance policies in schools, there was little research being done to prove the effectiveness of these methods. However, as the nation began to gain a heightened awareness of social justice issues, the civil rights of children, as well as a clearer picture of the school-to-prison pipeline, the implications of zero tolerance policies became a hot topic in education. These policies began to come largely under fire for two major reasons, the first being that the extremely high rates of suspensions, expulsions, and interactions with Juvenile Justice services (see Figure 1 for example, left)
Figure 1. Expulsion rates in Chicago, IL.

across the country did not have any correlation with safer school environments or increasing achievement rates (Losen & Martinez, 2013). Secondly, data pertaining to the distribution of suspensions and expulsions among subgroups raised concerns due to their inherent conflicts with the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case ensuring all students were guaranteed equal, and quality education (The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, n.d.). Specifically, these conflicts lie in the appearance of inequity as it relates to the disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates of minority students as well as marginalized groups such as students with disabilities, LGBT students, and youth living in poverty and/or foster care (Carter, Fine, & Russell, 2014). The U.S. Department of Education has addressed the issues related to high levels of student suspension and expulsion across the country and the glaring discrepancy in number across subgroups based on race, gender, and ability.For example, According to U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, “one of every five African American male students was suspended out of school at least once during the school year 2009-10, three and a half times the rate of their peers” (Carter, Fine, & Russell, 2014). Additional data pertaining to specific districts and states can also be obtained through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

New tactics: restorative justice practices and support

Due to these limitations, there has been a large shift toward alternative behavioral management plans such as the implementation of emotional and social support via restorative justice theory. The use of restorative justice theory and practices, much like zero-tolerance policies, was borne out of greater societal need and is not limited to schools. According to the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, a head organization in research and implementation restorative justice programs, restorative justice is used primarily in
Restorative Justice1.jpg
Figure 2. What are restorative justice practices?

criminal justice systems around the world to repair harm caused by crime through cooperative practices (2016). Within the realm of education, restorative justice practices focus on five key elements that can be seen in Figure 2 (right). These practices are student-centered in nature and focus on creating a positive school environment that uses behavior management as a tool for students to learn accountability, social responsibility, self-control, and communication without removing students from the school environment (Institute for Advancing Unity, n.d.). The need for the development of these skills within the school environment can be explained by a quick examination of Social Bond Theory. This theory postulates that the individuals are truly connected to society through four fundamental social bonds that are formed in social contexts with others such as family, peers, and school (Unal & Cukur, 2011). Without these strong social bonds, Hirschi's theory postulates that delinquent and criminal conduct tends to occur (See Figure 3 below).

Restorative Justice2.png
Figure 3. Hirschi's Social Bonding Theory

Where we are now
With restorative justice practices gaining popularity among educational organizations including the U.S. Department of Education itself, there has been a wide roll-out of these practices throughout the county. Reflective of differences in school cultures among districts as well as entire states, there are many differences between how these practices are implemented. Some schools, for example, are using programs such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) to change the current culture of their school. Others, such as the Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified School Districts in California, are directly repealing zero-tolerance policies by narrowing the actions that qualify for suspension and expulsion (Rott, 2013, Tucker, 2015).

Restorative Justice3.jpg
Figure 4. A Tale of Two Schools.

These changes have not come without debate amongst the public. Those who champion the shift claim that it is addressing the social and emotional needs of students as well as reducing the number of disciplinary issues seen in the school (see Figure 4 below) while those who vehemently oppose it claim that the changes are drastically reducing the safety of children and teachers and that this approach undermines teachers’ ability to remove disruptive students from the classroom when necessary (Sperry, 2015). For example, the 2014 decision to remove willful disobedience as an offense qualifying for suspension in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in California, has become a focus of study on the implementation of these practices (Weingarten, 2015). While hailed for its innovative practices and successes in district schools with adequate training and resources, the schools that did not receive these necessities struggled with maintaining classroom order and handling disruptive students especially with new teachers (Sperry, 2015; Moser, 2015).


While behavioral management practices have begun to shift in a more positive direction focused on educational equity and social and emotional development for students, the battle is far from over. In the future, more research pertaining to the implementation of restorative justice practices will be needed to determine the effectiveness of such practices. It is clear, however, from current research that successful implementation relies heavily on clarity among administration, faculty and staff; the communication of high expectations for all students, and consistency throughout schools.

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Additional Reading

American Federation of Teachers. (n.d.) Resources on positive school discipline. Retrieved from http://www.aft.org/ae/winter2015-2016/resources.
*Article that supplies an overview of the concept of restorative justice within the framework of K-12 education as well as provides advice and resources for administrators and teachers for implementing these practices.

Carter, P., Fine, M., & Russell, S., (2014). Discipline disparities series: Overview. Bloomington, IN: The Equity Project at Indiana University. Retrieved from http://rtpcollaborative.indiana.edu/briefing-papers/.

Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. (n.d.) Brown v. Board of Education. Retrieved from http://www.civilrights.org/education/brown/.

Institute for Advancing Unity. (n.d.) Rethinking school discipline. Retrieved from http://www.championsofunity.org/education-resources/research-and-policy-outlook/rethinking-school-discipline.

Losen, J. and T. Martinez. (2013). Out of school and off track: The overuse of suspensions in American middle and high schools. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED541735.
*Literature detailing the limitations of zero-tolerance policies and the effects of such policies on academic achievement, college and career readiness, and graduation rates. This article also identifies limitations of these policies as they pertain to the disproportionate use on minority students and other marginalized groups.

Moser, L. (2015). Repeatedly suspending defiant students is horrible. But so is dumping them on untrained teachers. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/schooled/2015/11/09/los_angeles_unified_school_district_suspension_ban_teachers_complain_of.html.
*Media article detailing the shift from zero-tolerance policies to restorative justice. This article highlights the struggles held by new teachers and teachers that struggle with classroom management in coping with the ban of suspensions for willful disobedience in the LA Unified School District.

Rott, N. (2013). LA schools throw out suspensions for ‘willful defiance’. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2013/05/15/184195877/l-a-schools-throw-out-suspensions-for-willful-defiance.

Skiba, R., & Peterson, R. (1999). The Dark Side of Zero Tolerance: Can Punishment Lead to Safe Schools? The Phi Delta Kappan, 80(5), 372-382. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20439450.
*Literature that provides a historical overview on the birth and evolution of zero-tolerance policies in the United States as well as the limitations of these policies.

Scott, M. (2015). Social explanations of crime: Chapter 3. [Powerpoint Slides] Retrieved from http://slideplayer.com/slide/4533937/.

Sperry, P. (2015). How liberal discipline policies are making schools less safe. Retrieved from http://nypost.com/2015/03/14/politicians-are-making-schools-less-safe-and-ruining-education-for-everyone/.

Tucker, J. (2015). Oakland to halt school suspensions for willful defiance. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Oakland-to-halt-school-suspensions-for-willful-6262461.php.

Unal, H. and C. S. Cukur. (2011). The effects of school bonds, discipline techniques in school and victimization on delinquency of high school students. Educational Sciences: Theory and Practices, 11(2): 560-570. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ927365.

U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.) School Climate and Discipline. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline/index.html.

Weingarten, R. (2015) Moving past punishment toward support. Retrieved from http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/ae_winter2015wws.pdf.