By Christelle-grace Lowe, CFCC Student Fellow (2016-2017)
Zero tolerance policy is a disciplinary approach that allows school authorities to expel students from school without a thorough analysis of the reasons for the behavior that led to the expulsion. For example, under some zero tolerance policies, students found with weapons, alcohol, or drugs are automatically suspended or expelled. Students do not receive the opportunity to explain themselves. Thus, students who suffer from emotional trauma and/or behavioral disorders are treated the same way as those who deliberately commit serious offenses without extenuating circumstances. No excuses are allowed. This disciplinary practice was designed to “clean” the academic environment of all impurities, to enable “the chosen ones” to shine.
Discipline is a key factor in any learning environment. It helps keep the learner focused on learning, while allowing the instructor to get his/her message across. For discipline to be effective, however, it needs to be constructive and not negatively impact the individual. Experts and educators now decry the zero tolerance policy for its negative impact. By requiring mandatory suspensions or expulsions for certain behaviors, the school system has taken away the only chance that some of their most vulnerable students have for an education. Such a system creates a relationship between the schools and the justice system that should not exist. This inevitably contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Our country needs competent individuals to carry out its development. Education is the key to any societal progress. This goal will not happen by isolating or harshly punishing youths. It is widely known that people learn better within a group. Restorative practices are the answer to today’s need to come together for stronger community growth. Restorative practices are an alternative to strict discipline in schools, as well as in other settings. They are based on the values of cooperation, mutual understanding, trust, and respect. The approach of restorative practices is not to incriminate the student, but is to help the student understand the consequences of his/her action and develop a relationship with the teacher or the classmate who might have been offended by the student’s behavior.
As CFCC Student Fellows, we have been introduced to the ecology of human development, which is a system that holistically looks at how families and children are stronger together. The student who is suspended or expelled is a member of a family, and an attempt to understand his/her microsystem is helpful in fashioning constructive rather than destructive discipline. Restorative practices allow students to express their feelings or talk about conflicts they may be experiencing in their various microsystems. By enabling people to connect the dots between out-of-school situations, which could be influencing in-school student behavior, restorative practices shift the focus from punishment and exclusion toward healing and inclusion. Most importantly, restorative practices help build relationships and create trusting, safer environments for everyone within the school community, within families, and within society at large.