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Zero Tolerance Warning SignArnie Duncan and Eric Holder joined forces this month to draw attention to what some have called the most serious civil rights problem of the 21st century – the school to prison pipeline.  It is the result of zero tolerance school discipline policies implemented after the Columbine shootings in 1991. The intent of the policies is to protect children, and provide them with a safe learning environment. But for many children, they have had the opposite effect.  Thousands receive out of school suspensions for misbehaviors ranging from dress code violations to disrespect and defiance.

And the problems don’t stop there. Children of color and those with disabilities are suspended more frequently than their peers. Children suspended from school one or more times are far more likely than peers to experience school failure, drop out of school, and become involved with the juvenile justice system.

The changes proposed by Duncan and Holder represent a fundamental shift in perspective toward childhood wrong doing. More developmentally appropriate than traditional models, the new legislation acknowledges the need to teach children how to regulate how they react to others in their environment. Emphasis is placed on the relational aspects of behavior, and the need to help youth learn how to restore peace and understanding following disruptive situations.

This type of restorative discipline has its roots in Native American cultures who form a circle of elders around young boys to offer advice and support. When inappropriate behaviors occur, these elders help offenders make restitution to the community for any damages that occur.

Within the school setting, restorative discipline has a similar collaborative tone. Emphasis is placed less on compliance, and more on building awareness of the effects of a student’s misbehavior on the well-being of others. Adults help wrongdoers recognize the harmful effects of their actions, and plan for ways to avoid similar incidents from happening in the future. When appropriate, they support an offender’s efforts at reparation.

You can read more about restorative discipline at:

www.dignityinschools.org and www.iirp.edu