Zero Tolerance is not the magic bullet for creating safer schools, Restorative Practices is the way to go! Initially, Zero Tolerance policies were created as a way of consistently enforcing suspension and expulsion policies in response to weapons, drugs and violent acts in the school setting.  Over time, the policies moved beyond the originally identified infractions to include less severe behaviors such as smoking, classroom disruptions and the like, as a way of creating a safe school environment that is conducive to learning. “Research indicates that, as implemented, zero tolerance policies are ineffective in the long run and are related to a number of negative consequences, including increased rates of school drop out and discriminatory application of school discipline practices” (NASP 2001).  On the other hand, “Restorative Practices, which originally developed as Restorative Justice, is an approach to crime that focuses on repairing the harm and giving voice to the victims” (Bazemore and Umbreit 2001). Research has shown that if implemented correctly Restorative Justice can “improve the school environment, enhance learning and encourage young people to become more responsible and empathetic” (Bitel 2005, 13).

Many educators feel that Zero Tolerance is easier for them, primarily because they do not have to “deal” with a student whose behavior is difficult.  Educators who are in favor of Zero Tolerance feel that it is easier to remove students with challenging behaviors rather than help them recognize the teachable moment and learn a healthier way to solve a problem or deal with a challenge.  In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. Each time we send a student out of our classroom for disciplinary purposes, especially to be suspended or expelled, we give the student the sense that they are not wanted, that they are not valued, that we don’t care and/or that we are not capable of handling them. Additionally, they lose valuable academic instruction.   When the student comes back into our classroom they are even more difficult to deal with because they are behind in whatever instruction they have missed and therefor we need to work with them to catch them up.  Their classmates may mock them resulting in escalated behavior which starts the cycle all over again where they are asked to leave the classroom again.  Additionally, the trust and respect, if there was any to begin with, is now broken. It is difficult to learn when you have a chip on your shoulder and difficult to teach when you are harboring resentments.  However, when educators choose to use Restorative Practices they proactively create a caring community and have ways to help students make more peaceful choices.  “The social discipline window, which defines restorative practices as a leadership model for… teachers…, shows how the restorative domain combines high control and high support and is characterized by doing things with people rather than to them or for them.  The fundamental underlying hypothesis of Restorative Practices is that “human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather to them or for them”  (Wachtel, 2012).

Fill in the blank with the first word that comes to your mind…Rules are meant to be ________ and promises are meant to be ____________.  Did you say broken and then kept?  I bet you did. It is contradictory to have a Zero Tolerance policy with a list of rules and think that this practice will create a safe and caring community, especially if you are coming from a punitive approach. From my own experience, I believe that it is much more effective to set clear boundaries when you are coming from an educative/restorative perspective.  Boundaries based on respect and Restorative Justice creates a climate of peace, cooperation and safety in our classroom and school communities. Setting virtues-based guidelines and ground rules that restore justice, engage cooperation and preserve courtesy, call students to make amends, not excuses, and gives them reflection time rather than mere detention. It includes creating shared Class Promises or Classroom Constitutions to guide behavior throughout the school year. If students don’t feel safe, they are not free to learn. Restorative practices create the safe and caring environment that is most conducive to learning.

“Administrators perceive Zero Tolerance policies as fast-acting interventions that send a clear, consistent message that certain behaviors are not acceptable in the school” (NASP, 2001). They often do this without giving students the opportunity to share the reason they demonstrated the mistaken behavior in the first place. Additionally, they do not give the student the opportunity to make amends, thus the students are left feeling like they are a mistake not just that they made a mistake. Administrators can be unaware of what is really going on beneath the surface and/or behind the scenes to cause the behavior. Using a Restorative Practice of getting curious instead of furious, administrators can get to the root cause and enroll the student, their family and the greater community towards help and healing for all involved. “Restorative Practices such as conferences and circles provide a safe environment for people to express and exchange emotion” (Nathanson, 1998).  They help to minimize the negative affects that Zero Tolerance can often create while maximizing the positive affects.

Though teachers and administrators will need to develop a different mindset and the skills to utilize this approach effectively, Restorative Practices is a more effective approach for improving the school environment, enhancing learning and encouraging young people to become more responsible and empathetic than Zero Tolerance.


Blood, P. & Thorsborne, M. (2006). Overcoming resistance to whole-school uptake of restorative practices. Presentation at The Next Step: Developing Restorative Communities, Part 2 IIRP Conference, Bethlehem, PA.

Fox, K. J. (2012). Redeeming communities: Restorative offender reentry in a risk-centric society. Victims and Offenders,7(1), 97-120.

McAlinden, A. (2011). Transforming justice: challenges for restorative justice in an era of punishment-based corrections. Contemporary Justice Review. 14(4),383-406.

McCluskey, G.; Lloyd, G.; Kane, J.; Riddell, S.; Stead, J. & Weedon, E. (2008). Can restorative practices in schools make a difference? Educational Review 60(4): 405-417.

NASP, Zero tolerance and alternative strategies: a fact sheet for educators and Policymakers 2001

The Advancement Project & Power You Center for Social Change (2011). Telling it like it is: youth speak out on the school to prisonpipeline. Washington, D.C./ Miami, FL.

Wachtel, T. (2012). Defining Restorative. Bethlehem, PA: International Institute for Restorative Practices. Paper presented at the 15th World Conference of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, Bethlehem, PA.

Wachtel, T. (2013). Dreaming of a New Reality. Pipersville, PA: The Piper’s Press