To Keep Kids Out of Trouble—And Prison—Teach Them to Understand Their Emotions

After teaching students to understand and talk through their conflicts, schools in Denver and Los Angeles have seen major reductions in disciplinary action.

by Katherine Gustafson

Restorative circle at MetWest High School

A restorative circle at MetWest High School in Oakland, Calif. Image by Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth and Oakland Unified School District.


After the shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre famously suggested that we arm police officers in elementary schools to help “good guy[s] with guns” defeat “bad guy[s] with guns.” While the idea of turning our schools into the backdrop for a war-zone video game is alarming enough, the call for militarization of classrooms threatens to entrench an even deeper dysfunction in our school system, one that threatens students’ wellbeing from inside the school walls.

Suspensions fell 40 percent in Denver Public Schools after the district started using restorative justice practices.

For decades, many of our nation’s schools have instituted zero-tolerance disciplinary policies that criminalize what used to be considered minor infractions and send scores of young people—especially young men of color—into an involvement with the criminal justice system that in many cases will continue throughout their lives.

The “good guys with guns” in these schools are on-duty police officers, otherwise known as School Resource Officers. Their presence ups the disciplinary ante, increasing the likelihood of suspensions, citations, and sometimes even arrest. Instead of studying, our students are increasingly spending time in suspension or in prison cells.

A concerned group of educators, citizens, and philanthropists is raising the alarm about this epidemic of criminalization, which these advocates of change call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” They are calling for for an alternative to these punitive practices, namely the institution of mediation methods that help students learn to deal with their emotions, talk about their problems, and confront the consequences of misbehavior in a supportive environment.

Strong evidence is piling up that their approach improves behavior while reducing the need for punishment.

“Not all troublemakers”


The iron-fisted disciplinary practices employed in many public schools can be traced back to another school shooting: the 1999 rampage in Columbine, Colo. In the aftermath, school districts influenced by the “broken windows” policing philosophy popular in the mid-1990s—which clamped down on minor crimes in hopes of preventing major ones—instituted get-tough approaches to student misbehavior.

“You can’t say that a majority of African American kids in the state of Texas are just bad kids.”

The result has been a major increase in disciplinary action that disproportionately affects students of color. A landmark study published in July 2011 by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments and the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University found that in Texas almost six out of 10 public school students were suspended or expelled at least one time between seventh and 12th grade. The study also found that 89 percent of African-American boys and 74 percent of Hispanic boys had received at least one discretionary violation—that is, a violation of the school’s code of conduct—compared to 59 percent of white boys. The same pattern, though with lower numbers of violations, held for female students.

Council of State Governments Justice Center and The Public Policy Research Institute, Texas A&M University


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