The fight outside North High School in Denver was about to turn more violent as one girl wrapped a bike chain around her fist to strike the other. Just before the attacker used the weapon, school staff arrived and restrained her, ending the fight but not the story.
Most high schools would have referred the chain-wielding girl to the police. But North High brought the two girls together to resolve the conflict through conversation. Feeling less hostile after figuring out the backstory, the girls did not fight again.
This alternative method of discipline, called “restorative practices,” is spreading across the country—and being put to the test, amid sharp increases in school violence.
Long pushed by racial justice groups, the method aims to curb suspensions and arrests that disproportionately affect students of color. It replaces punishment with discussions about the causes and harmful impact of misbehavior. The hope is that students will learn from their misdeeds and form healthier relationships with peers and teachers, making violence less likely.
Orange County, California, is expanding the program into 32 schools, and Iowa City has started its own. Many other large districts—including Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City, Miami, New York City, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Washington, D.C.—have introduced it in recent years.
Denver, which has pioneered restorative practices and inspired districts to follow its lead, seems a good place to ask: Is the kinder approach working? Yes and no, and often the answer depends on the eye of the beholder. Suspensions have fallen significantly, in keeping with the intent of the changed discipline policy. But fighting and other serious incidents have not meaningfully declined, the district says. Other cities have reported similar outcomes, according to evaluations and school leaders.
Critics point to the massacre in Parkland, Florida, as an example of what can go wrong. Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 fellow students and staff members in 2018, was able to stay in school—and pass a background check to purchase the weapon he used—because the district addressed his violent behavior before the shooting through counseling instead of referring him to authorities.
The reasons for the mixed results in Denver, where Latinos and blacks make up two-thirds of the students, and other cities are complex. Some teachers and administrators don’t buy the restorative philosophy. In schools struggling with low test scores and overcrowded classrooms, it seems like another time-consuming educational fad. And some students see a restorative conversation as an easy way to escape suspension rather than a learning experience.
In 2021, Denver expelled police, called school resource officers (SROs), from its schools. Late last summer, when Denver students returned to school buildings after more than a year of remote learning, the police were no longer there to help tamp down the violence. The outbreak in Denver was alarming. In just the first month of instruction, there were 102 student fights, 11 sexual assaults, eight assaults on staff and 29 weapons violations, including four loaded firearms and a stabbing of a student with a knife, according to Boardhawk, a news website that covers the district. Michael Eaton, chief of the Department of Safety for Denver schools, warned in November that he’s never seen such a surge of crime in his 10 years of service.
School districts around the country had adopted “zero-tolerance” policies in the wake of the 1999 Columbine school massacre, handing out tougher penalties including suspensions for a long list of offenses, from talking in class and insubordination to gang fights. Violence in schools fell during the early days of zero tolerance along with a national decline in crime. Amid the inevitable excesses, such as elementary students suspended for playing with make-believe guns, one fact stood out: black students were being suspended at three times the rate of whites.
Debate over the racial disparity continues today: Are schools racially biased in suspending a higher percentage of blacks, or are these students misbehaving more often than whites?
The Obama Administration took sides, launching more than 300 investigations, causing schools to change their discipline policies to penalize fewer blacks and Latinos. The Trump Administration rescinded Obama’s guidance as a misuse of federal power. Now the Biden Administration’s education secretary, Miguel Cardona, is preparing new guidance that appears to be in line with Obama’s.
In a study of Denver’s K-12 schools, Yoli Anyon, a professor of social work at San Jose State University, found that black and Latino students were often punished more harshly than their white peers for the same offenses and were at greater risk for suspensions. But such findings of subtle bias have run up against a straightforward fact—black and Latino students get into more fights than whites and Asians.
Gail Heriot, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, says advocates wrongly dismiss evidence that shows behavior, rather than bias, better explains the disparity in suspensions.
“Sometimes people simply neglect what’s clear from the data,” says Heriot, a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law. “It seems to me that woke-ism is a large part of why people reject the data.”
Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from a RealClearInvestigations article published February 2.