In the aftermath of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, the Colorado Legislature enacted a “zero tolerance” policy governing student behavior. At the slightest rule breach, offending kids were bounced out of school on suspension for a period appropriate to the perceived offense. No trial, no hearing, no explanations.
Only recently has the realization come to school administrators that “time out” for suspension also equals “time out” for learning, not to mention the stigma that some (but not all) students experience as a result of being ousted from classes.
So it was that in January the Obama Administration directed schools to scrap overly zealous zero tolerance policies that led to automatic suspensions (and criminal records). Such policies, Administration officials said, “impacted minorities at higher rates” than non-minorities.
While that may or may not be true, it is axiomatic that time spent by students of any ethnicity on suspension stunts their educational growth.
Not surprisingly, Colorado is also the venue for one of the first experimental efforts at ameliorating the “zero tolerance” policy. PBS’s News Hour recently reported on Aurora, Colo.’s Hinkley High School.
Hinkley has about 2,000 students, of which 75 percent qualify for free and reduced cost meals. Three years ago, Principal Matthew Willis instituted a form of discipline called “restorative justice” in which a student or students who engage in conduct that formerly would have merited suspension are brought together with their parents and a dean of students to discuss the infraction and try to heal the harm that was caused by it. The dean guides the conversation and tries to restore relationships to what they were before the incident.
Willis has been pleased with the results over the three year span the program has been in effect. He has seen “significant declines in defiance, disobedience and use of profanity,” he said.
“We have had a 48 percent reduction in out-of-school suspensions. In 2007-8 we had approximately 263 physical altercations. And so far this year only 31 physical altercations,” he added.
Dean of Students Bonnie Martinez lauds the program: “(Restorative justice) to some people may be viewed as a soft discipline especially if you look at Western culture. We’re about war and violence, not peace and harmony. But for (students) to come together, and for their families to come together, and talk about it and … express truly what happened, how it affected them … what (they) are responsible for and how (they) solve it, that’s deeper than (suspension).”
“What do we know about anger?” asks Student Counselor Deanna Kline. “It is a secondary feeling. What is underneath anger? A lot of deeper emotions and feelings. When teachers don’t resolve the harm by doing restorative justice then that conflict is always there. And usually what will happen is kids will just stay angry, and they will just disrupt, disrupt, disrupt.”
The Denver Foundation is one of the sponsors of Hinkley High School’s restorative justice program. Sarah Park, the foundation’s director of education, said: “In Colorado our zero tolerance law was really in response to Columbine. And we were scared. We were all heartbroken. We were terrified and we wanted to make sure kids were safe. And that’s really where the intention around zero tolerance came from. Unfortunately they way it played out was in more negative educational terms. It’s much more likely that if (kids) are suspended that they will end up in jail; and it’s much more likely that if they’re suspended even once … they’re more likely to drop out.”
Seems to me, there’s a valuable lesson for all of us here, not necessarily confined to just schools.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates, and has served on the Washoe County and Nevada state GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.