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. They discovered that a boy was playing them off each other. 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. Many schools are enduring sharp increases in violence following the return of students from COVID lockdowns, making this softer approach a higher-stakes experiment in student safety.
“Kids are getting into more fights and disturbances because they are struggling,” says Yoli Anyon, a professor of social work at San Jose State University. “So schools are relying on restorative practices as a way to help young people transition back to the classroom.”
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, from sassing teachers and smoking pot to fighting (serious offenses like gun possession are still referred to the police). The hope is that students, through apologizing and making amends, will learn from their misdeeds and form healthier relationships with peers and teachers, making school violence less likely as they continue their education.
Orange County, California, is spearheading an expansion of the program into 32 schools, and Iowa City just started its own. Many other large districts—including Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City, Miami, New York City, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Washington D.C.—introduced the alternative in recent years.
Denver, which pioneered restorative practices more than a decade ago 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 a chilling 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 tried to address 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 administrations 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 students who are demoralized by school sometimes see a restorative conversation as an easy way to escape suspension rather than a learning experience.
“Restorative practices aren’t a silver bullet that alone fix behavior problems,” says Don Haddad, the superintendent of Colorado’s St. Vrain Valley School District, which has used the program for years. “It only works as part of a comprehensive improvement of schools, with better academic programs that give students hope for the future. Otherwise, it has the potential to be just another feel-good program.”
Cops Get the Boot
Last year, Denver doubled down on restorative practices when it expelled police, called school resource officers (SROs), from its schools. Officers ticketed and arrested 4,500 students at school from 2014 to 2019 in a district of about 90,000 pupils. Critics of the use of SROs say many of these incidents, like marijuana possession, should have been handled by restorative conversations.
The Black Lives Matter protests after the police murder of George Floyd in 2020 gave the progressive Denver School Board an opening to move against the SROs. When Denver police used tear gas on protesters, Tay Anderson, who joined the board after serving as a restorative coordinator at North High, says he decided to ride the momentum against law enforcement that was sweeping the country. He immediately helped draft a resolution to phase the officers out of schools by the middle of 2021.
Many school leaders, who weren’t consulted about the order, objected. North High Principal Scott Wolf told board members that the role of SROs in schools is misunderstood. He called them an “incredible asset” by building positive relationships with students and helping improve the school’s culture. In the model of community policing, SROs serve mostly to deter crime.
But the board passed the measure unanimously, joining more than 30 districts nationwide in removing police from schools.
In late summer, when Denver students returned to the 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.
“The murder of George Floyd had nothing to do with SROs, but for political reasons, districts made the decision to remove a very protective element from their schools,” says Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. “We now see that this didn’t make schools safer.”
Officials in Alexandria, Virginia, and at least one other district called the police back to school last fall to combat the jump in assaults and gun threats. But Anderson, a progressive leader of the Denver board at age 23, rejects the criticism that it blundered. “We would have seen these spontaneous incidents across the district whether there was an officer present or not,” he says.
The Rise and Fall of Suspensions
Denver and other districts nationwide saw a rise in suspensions after one of the most tragic days in Colorado school history: the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School by two armed students. Districts adopted zero-tolerance policies in the wake of Columbine, handing out tougher penalties including suspensions for a long list of offenses, from talking in class and insubordination to gang fights. Three years after Columbine, suspensions in Denver rose to 13,679.
Violence in schools fell during the early days of zero tolerance along with a national decline in crime, making this policy’s impact hard to discern. 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, according to the U.S. Office of Civil Rights.
The debate over the causes of the racial disparity continues today: Are schools acting with racial bias in suspending a higher percentage of blacks, or are these students misbehaving more often than whites? The question isn’t merely academic, since students who are suspended or expelled are about three times as likely to be involved with the juvenile justice system the following year, research shows.
The Obama administration took sides, warning schools that it saw racism at work and would carry out civil rights investigations against schools that didn’t rectify the disparity in suspensions. More than 300 investigations were launched, 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 President Biden’s education secretary, Miguel Cardona, is preparing new guidance that appears to be in line with Obama’s.
While bias is hard to prove, researchers have approached it from several angles. In a study of Denver’s K-12 schools, Professor Anyon controlled for several factors such as whether students had disabilities, were identified as gifted, or came from low-income families. She 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. In a Stanford study of implicit bias, 191 teachers were presented with vignettes of a range of misbehavior by students with both black (Deshawn) and white (Jake) sounding names. When asked if they could imagine suspending the students, the teachers were significantly more likely to suspend the students they thought were black.
But the findings of subtle bias have run up against a straightforward fact—African American and Latino students get into more fights than whites and Asians. Since 1993, the National Center for Education Statistics has surveyed students in grades 9–12, asking if they have been in a physical fight at school. In 2019, American Indian students fought the most (18.9 percent), followed by blacks (15.5 percent), Pacific Islanders (9.1 percent), Latinos (7.8 percent), whites (6.4 percent), and Asians (4.9 percent). These differences have held steady over decades.
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. This includes her fellow commissioners, whom Heriot took to task in a dissent to a 2019 report claiming that students of color don’t commit more disciplinable offenses.
“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.”
Do blacks and Latinos fight more because some live in communities torn apart by poverty, violence, and gangs, and bring these animosities with them into schools?
“To me, that’s a racist narrative,” says Anyon. “The vast majority of kids from low-income communities are not involved in gangs. They are not violent. Their parents are not criminals. But it’s what we see in the media.”
Anyon says the root of the suspension problem isn’t unruly behavior. Rather, it’s the limited resources available to segregated schools and the lack of training for staff to prevent conflicts from escalating. The fix? Restorative practices.
Denver’s Model of Justice
Denver School Board leaders were lobbied to adopt restorative practices by Padres & Jovenes Unidos and other racial justice groups. The city started in 2006 with a pilot project at North High and three other schools, supported by more than $1 million in state grants, and a revamp of its discipline code.
Federal and state laws require schools to report to police the most serious offenses, such as possessing a firearm, assaults that cause injuries, and selling drugs. But Denver changed how it handled the more common incidents, such as fights, verbal abuse, and smoking marijuana, by often sending students through a restorative process rather than suspending them or calling the police.
After a fight, each student talks separately with a restorative coordinator, often a recent high school graduate who is hired as a full-time employee and trained in the practice. The coordinator calms down the students and explains the process before they all meet. During the restorative conversation, the goal is to get students to discuss the harm they have caused other students by disrupting class or bullying them. They also agree on a prevention plan, like going to counseling. Some make amends by cleaning the lunchroom or writing a letter of apology.
Some students develop empathy by seeing the implications of their actions and afterward get along better with peers, says Haddad, the superintendent. Several years ago, a group of students caused a lot of damage to a school building as part of a senior prank that got out of hand. Instead of facing vandalism charges, they went through a restorative meeting, wrote letters of apology, and helped repair the school. “When we see these kids today, they still thank us for giving them a chance to avoid a police record, which would have been very problematic,” he says.
But the practice doesn’t always work. Sometimes students brawl again and again, forcing the coordinator to change their schedules so they won’t encounter each other in class or the hallways. At times, victims of a fight demand the arrest of their attackers. While the coordinator will try to dissuade them, the school can’t stop them from calling the police.
What happens when students are caught smoking marijuana? “We realized that sending students home for cannabis use was not the best thing since they continue to use it and play video games rather than being in class,” says Jay Grimm, Denver’s district director of restorative practices. “Instead, we brought in 25 health professionals to run education sessions and provide therapy to drug users.”
Denver now hopes to bring restorative practices directly into the classrooms by training its teachers, who are predominately white, to check their possible racial biases. Grimm says teachers sometimes trigger conflicts that can lead to suspensions by their unforgiving responses to minor infractions, like using a cellphone in class or being tardy.
“If the teacher scolds and shames Carlos in front of the class for being late, he might talk back and then get kicked out,” Grimm says. “But teachers can also just say, ‘Welcome, Carlos. Let’s talk after class.’”
Resistance From Teachers
The challenge for Denver is that the entire district isn’t onboard with restorative practices. About 63 percent of the district’s more than 230 schools have chosen to hire a restorative coordinator, a relatively low-paying job that doesn’t require a college degree. Some schools use coordinators to enforce traditional discipline as hall and lunchroom monitors.
Grimm estimates that about a third of teachers, who are currently dealing with students who fell behind during the pandemic, aren’t supportive. Some teachers object because restorative practices are not part of the union agreement. Others don’t believe it works.
Whether Denver is a success story depends on the measuring stick. The district sees its sizeable drop in suspensions, even as the student body grew, as a big win. Suspensions fell from 10,344 in the school year ending in 2010 to 4,160 nine years later before the pandemic closed schools, according to district data.
But the aggressive behavior of students didn’t change a lot during that time. The district experienced a small increase to 714 in referrals of serious incidents to police. However, the number of mutual fights dropped to 915 in 2019 from 1,069 four years prior.
Sam Song, a professor of psychology who evaluates restorative programs in Nevada, says they can’t be expected to solve the complicated problem of violence in schools.
“It’s so hard to make changes in schools, but we have lots of examples where restorative practices made a positive difference in a student’s life,” he says. “So if it helps only 50 percent of the kids, I think that’s worth it.”