Zero-Tolerance vs. Restorative Justice Policies in Schools

Are the policies in your children’s schools helping them or hurting them? Read this investigative article and find out for yourself.

by Laura Onstot | Laura Onstot, registered nurse and mom of 2 young kids, rarely pees alone, only frequents restaurants with Kraft Mac N Cheese, and blogs at Nomad’s Land. In her spare time, she can be found sleeping on the couch while she lets her kids watch endless episodes of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Her parenting advice is questionable, but at least she’s honest. Follow her on Twitter @LauraOnstot.

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Katy King, a first-grade teacher at a Minneapolis public school, tells the story of a student who was banned from the school bus after bringing a pellet gun on board. While this consequence may seem reasonable, the student, an 11-year-old girl cared for by a single mother, then had to take the city bus to and from school alone without a cell phone.

“The consequence in the situation inconveniences the parents but also puts the student in danger…” said King. “What form of consequence can exist that keeps the child safe and actually teaches them to learn from their actions?”

Over the past 35 years, schools have used two different kinds of behavior policies: zero-tolerance policies and restorative justice policies. Both policies originated within the legal system and were later adopted by educators and used in schools. Knowing where these policies originated and how they have evolved can help us understand how current behavior policies are crafted and how they will impact our children.

a boy in gray sweater sitting at the table
Photo by Mikhail Nilov on

What is a Zero-Tolerance policy?

A zero-tolerance policy outlines a behavior and its consequences. Whoever commits the crime faces the penalty, regardless of the circumstances. Russell Skiba, an educational psychologist and professor at Indiana University, defines zero-tolerance as “a method of sending a message that certain behaviors will not be tolerated, by punishing all offenses severely, no matter how minor.” Sometimes these policies are taken a little too verbatim and end up in the headlines, like when a kindergartener reports she is going to shoot her Hello Kitty bubble gun and is suspended for two days.

The History of Zero-Tolerance

The term, “zero-tolerance” first appeared in the 1980s, when the United States developed programs to combat rising handgun homicides and a festering crack-cocaine epidemic. After quickly gaining popularity, the term was used in various contexts outside of the legal world. Schools used the term in their behavior policies on drugs and violence.

Then, in 1994, the Gun-Free Schools Act required that any student who brought a weapon on campus was expelled for one year. For fear of losing their federal funding, schools instituted these policies regardless of whether they agreed with them.

Do Zero-Tolerance Policies Work?

Many believed zero-tolerance policies would eliminate bias and discrimination, given that the consequence occurs regardless of the situation. But research shows otherwise. 

Research conducted on zero-tolerance policies shows that students who are suspended are at increased risk of further misbehavior and further suspensions. Those who are suspended are more likely to drop out of school, less likely to graduate on time, and more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

On a more concerning level, research shows an overrepresentation of African American students in suspension and expulsion. At the same time, there is no evidence that African American students are causing higher rates of disruption or violence. One study concluded, “African American students may be disciplined more severely for less serious or more subjective reasons.”

Other over-represented groups in zero-tolerance discipline include Native American youth, kids from low-income families, and special needs students. LGBTQIA students are more likely to receive disciplinary sanctions than their straight counterparts.

History of Restorative Justice

Restorative justice entered the scene in the 1970s after a probation officer required teenagers guilty of vandalizing property to meet with their victims and fix what had been damaged. Because of the positive response, the concept spread within the court system, becoming known as a “restorative conference.”

In the 1990s, Australian educators took the idea of restorative conferences and brought them to the classroom. While initial uses of Restorative Justice Education closely followed the restorative conferences of the court system, it gradually evolved to fit school-aged children instead of offenders in the court. Schools added practices such as community building, emotional education, and practicing transparent and fair decision-making.

What is a Restorative Justice Policy?

Restorative justice education first works to ensure the school provides a safe and supportive environment that sets students up for success. Students are proactively educated on classroom rules with the goal of avoiding behavior issues down the road. When behavior issues arise, they are addressed with a focus on repairing and restoring the relationship between the victim and the offender. Punitive and exclusionary punishment is not used.

For example, if a student colored on another student’s desk with markers, a restorative justice framework might have the student clean the desk, apologize, and make amends with the student whose desk they colored on. But in a school with restorative justice policies, education about marker use would occur at the beginning of the school year–how to use markers,  what is appropriate and inappropriate, etc., with the aim of preventing this behavior in the first place.

Restorative justice policies keep kids in the classroom rather than sending them to a corner, where they would miss out on educational opportunities. 

Do Restorative Justice Policies Work?

There is variability in the currently published studies, with some focusing on individual students while others focus on schools. Some trials are randomized, and others lack a control group. A policy brief by educational psychologists Anne Gregory and Katherine Evans concludes that when schools implement restorative initiatives, their suspension rates drop. They state that “restorative initiatives have promise in narrowing racial disparities in suspension as well as to foster positive student development. However, mixed findings indicate that the promise is not always realized.”

A randomized trial conducted in Pittsburgh public schools found multiple benefits of restorative practices. Teachers reported positive impacts on teaching and learning conditions. Students in the restorative practices group were less likely to be suspended and less likely to be suspended multiple times.  They saw higher attendance rates in the elementary grades. There were fewer disparities in the suspension rates among low-income and African American students. However, there was no decrease in student suspension rates on individual education plans. Moreover, though suspensions decreased, academic outcomes did not improve in the restorative practices schools.

In Conclusion

It is one thing to have a behavior policy or a swath of research on which policy is best. However, research and policies don’t necessarily translate to what happens in your child’s classroom. Emily Noel, a high school teacher in Minneapolis, posits that while a school may have restorative justice policies, it comes down to the level of the individual teacher, with each teacher having his or her own rules. “You have teachers who have really embraced the restorative practice, and you have other teachers who aren’t, and so they still have practices like ‘I’m going to kick you out’ or ‘You’re not welcome here.’”

King has a similar perspective. “Most schools I’ve worked in are a hybrid but lean heavier towards zero-tolerance. Restorative [policies] have to be very intentional and well organized.” To improve behavior policies in schools, she recommends parents attend board meetings, lobby to change the district policies, form advocacy groups to be of aid for families who need support in schools, and seek out groups that help parents navigate schools.

So what can you, a parent, do to ensure the behavior policies in your children’s schools are in their best interest? Educate yourself on the behavior policies of your school, and if you have concerns, start a discussion with other parents and educators. 

And finally, King recommends that parents ask for what they need. 

“Parents get embarrassed when their kid messes up, but the best restorative practice is working as a team (schools and families) to make sure we do what is best for a student.” 


Alnaim, Mariam. “The Impact of Zero Tolerance Policy on Children with Disabilities.” World Journal of Education, vol. 8, no. 1, 2018, p. 1., 

Augustine, Catherine H., et al. “Can Restorative Practices Improve School Climate and Curb Suspensions?” RAND Corporation, 27 Dec. 2018, 

Edwards, Meridith. “Pennsylvania Girl, 5, Suspended for Talk of ‘Shooting’ a Hello Kitty ‘Bubble Gun’.” CNN, Cable News Network, 22 Jan. 2013, 

Fabelo, Tony, et al. “Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement.” CSG Justice Center, 23 Apr. 2020, 

Ford, Matt. “What Caused the Great Crime Decline in the U.S.?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 10 Aug. 2021, 

Gregory, Anne, and Katherine R. Evans. “The Starts and Stumbles of Restorative Justice in Education: Where Do We Go from Here?” National Education Policy Center, 14 Jan. 2020, 

Guidance Concerning State and Local Responsibilities under the Gun-Free …

King, Katy. Interview over Instagram Messenger. Conducted by Laura Onstot, 06 MAY 2022- 09 AUGUST 2022.

Marsh, Valerie L. Restorative Practice: History, Successes, Challenges & Recommendations. 

Noel, Emily. Phone Interview. Conducted by Laura Onstot, 09 MAY 2022.

Reynolds , Cecil R., et al. “Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools?: An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations.” American Psychologist, vol. 63, no. 9, 2008, pp. 852–862., 

Skiba, Russell J., and Kimberly Knesting. “Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice.” New Directions for Youth Development, vol. 2001, no. 92, 2001, pp. 17–43., 

Skiba, Russell. Phone Interview. Conducted by Laura Onstot, 11 MAY 2022.

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