Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Rethinking 'Zero Tolerance'

Photo illustration by Jesse Lenz

Before 2006, when Debora Borges-Carrera became the principal at Kensington Creative & Performing Arts High School (KCAPA) in north Philadelphia, the school was the scene of pandemonium. Not a day seemed to go by without a fight in the concrete stairwell. Kids sent to the principal’s office for disrupting class roamed the hallways. During one visit from the superintendent, a riot broke out in the cafeteria, with students climbing on tables and chucking their meal trays across the room. In Borges-Carrera’s first year on the job, the school—where about 90 percent of students are Latino or black and 100 percent are below the poverty line—reported 76 incidents of student misbehavior, more than four times the state average, including 13 aggravated assaults on staff members.

Under KCAPA’s “zero tolerance” policy—since the late 1990s, the prevailing approach to discipline in schools across the country—the typical response to student misbehavior was harsh punishment. “Any behavior that got a student sent to the principal’s office almost automatically resulted in suspension,” says Erin Smith, a teacher at the school since 2004. Under the district’s vaguely worded discipline policy, students were routinely transferred for possession of a “weapon,” which could be anything from a gun to a butter knife. With an estimated 200 out-of-school suspensions, according to the School District of Philadelphia, and a student body of just under 400, it was clear the system wasn’t working.

Within months of coming on the job, Borges-Carrera replaced KCAPA’s existing policy with a set of practices collectively known as restorative justice. Rather than punishing students who are out of line, restorative justice aims to help them rebuild their standing in the school community and repair the harm they have caused. The practices vary—peer-mediation programs, empathy training for offenders—but the basic idea is that strong interpersonal and community ties work better than fear of retribution.

The cornerstone of KCAPA’s program is the “restorative circle.” Drawing inspiration from the American Indian practice of the talking circle, in which a totem is passed around to signal the opportunity to speak, these meetings are convened for all kinds of reasons, from gauging students’ moods to addressing acts of serious misbehavior like assault or vandalism. In those more serious cases, all affected members of the community—parents and teachers, police officers, kids from other schools, as well as the perpetrator and victim—are invited to attend. One at a time, without interruption, each participant talks about how the offense has affected him or her. Then the group comes up with a plan to repair the damage. It may sound hokey or mundane, but the results are often striking.

“You get kids where at first glance you think, ‘Wow, OK, you seem very hard-core’—full-on crying,” says Thalia González, a professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles who studies restorative justice. Many students from neighborhoods with a history of violence, she says, long for a safe environment where they can express themselves. “With restorative justice, school suddenly becomes a place where you can do that. It changes how you view yourself. It changes how you view each other.”

Borges-Carrera also instituted a peer-mediation program to resolve conflicts before they escalate. Teachers who come across or hear about students not getting along—an argument in the hall, rumors of an upcoming fight—send them to speak with a designated peer who encourages them to talk out the problem. When the program began, students mostly ended up in mediation by referral, but over time, they have come to recognize its value for themselves. “I’ve had kids say, ‘I really want to fight today,’” Smith says. “They’ll ask for a mediation slip, and I’ll be like, ‘For who?’ And they’ll be like, ‘For me.’”

Borges-Carrera says the students feel attached to one another and their school in a way they didn’t before. “For a lot of our kids, we are the only stable family they have,” she says. That carries over after they leave; Smith recalls one young man who had graduated from KCAPA a year earlier walking into the school lobby bloodied and badly beaten. He asked to see his 12th-grade English teacher. “I didn’t know where to go,” he said. “Can you help me?”

By the 2009–2010 school year, four years after the transformation began, KCAPA was a different place. The number of serious incidents of misbehavior had plummeted 60 percent, even with enrollment up by more than 150 students. The 200 out-of-school suspensions per year were down to between 30 and 40. Arrests had decreased by two-thirds.

Spurred in part by the results at KCAPA, the School District of Philadelphia announced it would implement restorative-justice pilot programs in ten schools starting in 2013. If the two-year experiment is successful, the district will likely expand the program across the city. Philadelphia isn’t the only metropolis to try this approach—since the late 1990s, Los Angeles, Denver, and San Francisco have also run pilot programs—but it’s a bellwether. If restorative justice works in Philadelphia, widely known for rampant problems with violence and for one of the harshest zero-tolerance policies in the country, other major school districts will be encouraged to follow its lead. The most serious obstacle is one faced by local governments everywhere: funding. Governor Tom Corbett removed close to $1 billion from Pennsylvania’s education budget shortly after taking office in 2011. Schools like KCAPA have been forced to lay off staff members in droves, leading Borges-Carrera and others to worry that Philadelphia’s experiment could be cut short before it’s had a chance to demonstrate that restorative justice works better than punitive discipline.


After decades of stability, violent-crime rates began to shoot up starting in the 1960s but escalating in the 1970s and 1980s. Juvenile crime rose in tandem. The percentage of high-school seniors who reported being the victim of a serious assault rose by 18 percent between 1984 and 1994. Overall, arrest rates for violent crime among youth between 10 and 17 jumped 70 percent. The Columbine High School shooting in 1999 solidified the public consensus that drastic measures were needed to keep children safe.

The first federal measure to implement “zero tolerance” in schools was the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which mandated a one-year suspension for students who brought a firearm to school. Across the country, districts expanded on Congress’s obligatory punishments to include possession of drugs and alcohol; many began to require one- or ten-day suspensions for minor offenses like cursing or lying to an administrator. The suspension rate soared 87 percent between 1973 and 2006. For the 2009–2010 school year, the most recent for which the Department of Education has released national estimates, more than two million secondary students—one out of nine—were suspended at least once. Most suspensions are for minor infractions; the California Department of Education reported that between 2011 and 2012, more than half the state’s suspensions fell under the vague category of “defiance.”

Punishments are not doled out evenly. In the 2009–2010 school year, 24 percent of black and 12 percent of Latino kids were slapped with a suspension at least once compared with only 7 percent of white students. This is not because minority students misbehave more than their white counterparts. A 2008 study found that racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately suspended for the same behavior as their white counterparts.

In the past decade, academic research has come to show what administrators and teachers already know: Suspension may put troubled kids out of sight, but it doesn’t alter their conduct. “It’s not effective at changing the behavior, and it often contributes to higher dropout rates, higher arrest rates, because they’re not supervised,” says New York University sociologist Pedro Noguera, a leading advocate of restorative justice. Suspension often marks the beginning of a familiar pattern: Left on their own, kids get arrested, convicted of a crime, and end up incarcerated, feeding what researchers and advocates now call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Here again, the racial disparities are stark: According to a 2009 study from Northeastern University, nearly one in four male African American dropouts between 16 and 24 were in prison. For Latinos, the rate is 6.1 percent, and for whites, it is 6.6 percent.

Even as most school districts across the country were cracking down in the mid-1990s, a different approach was being tried in Minnesota. Alarmed by data showing that most in-school fights ended with a referral to law enforcement, state education administrators implemented a restorative-justice pilot program in 1995. Schools began to use talking circles after fights and replaced suspensions with peer mediations. The results were impressive: Lincoln Center Elementary School in St. Paul saw violent incidents decline from seven per day to fewer than two, while South St. Paul High School had out-of-school suspensions drop from 110 to 65 in one year. By 2001, half of all school districts statewide were using the approach.

As Minnesota’s pilots showed promising results, social-justice groups started pushing for restorative justice. The Advancement Project was among the first civil-rights groups to focus on school suspensions. Partnering in Denver with grassroots group Padres y Jóvenes Unidos (Parents and Youth United), the Advancement Project produced a report in 2005 showing that African American and Latino students in the district were 70 percent more likely to be disciplined than white students. Denver started restorative justice in four schools that same year; suspensions were reduced almost by one-third, while attendance went up. Educators across the country began to adopt restorative justice. The San Francisco Unified School District instituted restorative-justice practices in 2009 and saw expulsions fall by 28 percent. The Oakland Unified School District adopted the approach in 2009, which is now in 27 schools; the Ralph J. Bunche Academy, which serves students with behavioral issues, cut suspensions in half in just one year. Newark Public Schools trained its principals in restorative justice last summer, and the Los Angeles Unified School District began to transition to restorative justice in 2012.

The approach has its critics. Chief among them is Annalise Acorn, a law professor at the University of Alberta and author of Compulsory Compassion: A Critique of Restorative Justice. Assailing restorative justice as the product of “new-age thinking,” Acorn argues that it takes for granted that the offender is truly sorry rather than just playing along to avoid punishment. Worse, restorative practices can retraumatize victims by mandating further contact with the perpetrator. “You have these really wonderful, moving, sentimental stories about how the victim explains their pain and the perpetrator feels so sorry,” Acorn says. “We have this whole veneration of this dramatic, selfless forgiveness, and it’s so compelling. It’s difficult for victims to say, ‘I don’t really want to participate in that.’”

Other critics simply think the approach is too soft. Shortly after Philadelphia announced it would be incorporating restorative-justice practices, Philadelphia teacher Christopher Paslay wrote on his blog that it marked “the day discipline officially died in Philadelphia”; without suspensions, Paslay argued, unruly students would be impossible to control.

While they say it’s more effective than zero tolerance, supporters acknowledge that the approach can’t fix every problem of student behavior. “It’s not a panacea,” Pedro Noguera says. That’s partly because schools are powerless to address the root causes of student misconduct—generational poverty, abusive or neglectful families, gang activity.

Nationally, zero-tolerance policies are still the rule. In 2009, Representative Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee, introduced the Restorative Justice in Schools Act, which would allow administrators to use federal education funds to train teachers in the method, but the bill never reached the floor for a vote. In 2012, Congress held its first hearing on the school-to-prison pipeline. Earlier this year, both the Department of Education and the Department of Justice recommended that districts consider restorative justice rather than zero tolerance, although the recommendation was nonbinding. None of these efforts, however, has resulted in any change of federal policy, leaving the work of reform up to the states.

But in states like Pennsylvania, budget cuts have endangered districts’ ability to dedicate and train staff in new approaches to discipline. Thirty-four states will spend less this year on education than they did before the recession. The School District of Philadelphia lost $300 million for the 2013–2014 year and had to close 23 schools and fire almost 4,000 staff members, including all its assistant principals, more than 250 counselors, and more than 600 teachers. The district’s projected shortfall is estimated to rise to $320 million next school year.

Restorative-justice programs don’t cost a lot to implement—two-year training for faculty runs between $50,000 and $60,000—but they do require schools to have sufficient staff. The support staff on which the programs rely—counselors, assistant principals, restorative-justice coordinators—are often the first to go when budget cuts hit.

At KCAPA, much of the staff who assisted with discipline, including two counselors, an assistant principal, and two coordinators, were laid off before the 2013–2014 school year began. “September was bumpy, it was really bumpy,” Borges-Carrera says. “We probably had more fights in September than we’ve seen the past two years.” But Borges-Carrera says she and KCAPA are making do. Students are performing the duties of laid-off staff, assisting with peer mediation. Teachers have stepped up to train one another in restorative-justice practices. “We may be dysfunctional at times,” Borges-Carrera says. “But we are family nonetheless.”

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