There Are Proven Tools to Make Schools Safer -- We Just Have to Use Them

It's June and another school year is coming to an end across America. As we think about our schools can we agree that it is less expensive to run a safe school than a dangerous one, thus saving taxpayers money? Can we agree that before test scores can rise students have to feel safe at school?

If we can, then programs for improving school safety such as restorative practices become not frills but necessities.

For seven years in a row, West Philadelphia High School was on the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s “Persistently Dangerous Schools” list. Then, in 2008, restorative practices were implemented in the school. In one year the number of violent acts decreased by 52 percent. In the year after that, the number went down by 45 percent from the year before.

This did not happen because of zero tolerance. Zero tolerance is a concept that makes a nice bumper sticker. It’s not great public policy, however. It does not make schools safer. There are proven strategies and tactics that do work.

Years ago, I helped to coin a term and a movement that you may have heard of: “Toughlove.” In the years since, sadly, there has been more “tough” than “love.” The results, for schools, have not been impressive. Zero tolerance has been the rule in schools for some time. But there have been not been reductions in fights, disruptive behavior or other violent acts as a result.

We have found instead that a combination of high limit-setting and high encouragement pays dividends in school safety. We call it restorative practices. It builds social capital, emotional well-being and civic participation. It builds community in a world starved for community. It gives young people the tools to solve many of their own problems. Isn’t that a primary goal of education?

And it works. We’ve seen it in all kinds of schools, urban and suburban, cash-strapped or affluent, public or private, here and abroad.

The philosophy is simple. People respond best when you do things with them and not to them or for them. Restorative practice gives students responsibilities. It combines high expectations with lots of support.

Think back to the people in your life who had the greatest positive effect on you. They are the persons who had high expectations for you, and were tough, but were also supportive. You knew they cared.

In restorative practices, unacceptable behavior is confronted. But the students themselves, including victims, perpetrators, and others who have been affected, work together to determine how to make things right. Students assume responsibility for their behavior in a process that is supportive and not demeaning. That makes all the difference.

This is not permissiveness. Wrongdoing is not tolerated. Solutions, however, are arrived at collaboratively, generating “buy in” from the people involved and others who are impacted. There are protocols and processes involved in making restorative practices work in schools. They can be learned and applied. As this happens the school climate changes for the better.

This is not theory. It’s happening now at urban schools in New York City, Baltimore, Detroit, San Francisco; also in Australia, Canada, Hungary, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Restorative practice does not eliminate conflict. Unfortunately conflict is inherent and ongoing in human beings. It does, however, provide a successful way to resolve conflict. Humanity has developed science and technology faster than its social skills. We have an urgent need for better ways to manage our relationships and our decision making. Our students deserve it. Our future requires it.

Ted Wachtel
is president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, a graduate school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is also the co-author of two best-selling books for parents of troubled adolescents "Toughlove" and "Toughlove Solutions."