When dealing with school discipline, zero tolerance policies have failed to deliver good outcomes. Research has found that school suspensions correlate to academic failure and affect minority youth disproportionally. To make matters worse, zero tolerance policies fuel the school-to-prison pipeline as students are ticketed for disciplinary infractions or otherwise fed into the juvenile justice system.

“Restorative Discipline is an alternative, prevention-oriented approach that fosters accountability and amends-making,” says Marilyn Armour. “Instead of asking: what rule was broken, who broke it and what should the punishment be, Restorative Discipline sees wrongdoing as a violation of relationship and asks: what happened, who has been affected, and what are we going to do to make things right.”

Armour directs the Institute on Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue at the School of Social Work. She has recently received funding from the Texas Education Agency to conduct training sessions in Restorative Discipline in ten Education Service Centers, which provide support to school districts and charter schools throughout the state.

The training is for school administrators, who will be able to customize Restorative Discipline to their campuses, communities, and student bodies, and for Restorative Discipline coordinators, who will be in charge of managing the successful implementation of the method on each campus, training teachers and staffers, and collecting data to evaluate results.

“We have implemented Restorative Discipline with great success in a San Antonio school, and we are excited about making this critical program accessible to hundreds of schools across the state,” Armour says.

In 2012, Armour and her team inaugurated implementation of Restorative Discipline in Texas through partnering with Ed White Middle School, a San Antonio school with some of the highest disciplinary sanction rates in its district. Sixth-grade teachers were trained in restorative discipline in the summer of 2012, seventh-grade teachers were added in 2013, and eighth-grade teachers in 2014, the project’s final year.

“The main goal is to create a different kind of school climate,” Armour explains. “When a student misbehaves, instead of saying ‘go to the office,’ it’s about stopping and engaging with that student in a meaningful way. It is time-consuming, but it’s about investing in the creation of a different kind of climate that pays dividends when times get tough.”

After the first year of Restorative Discipline at Ed White Middle School, there was an 87 percent drop in off-campus suspensions and a 44 percent decrease in total suspensions. After the second year, the trend of lowering suspensions continued, and overall school climate improvement was reflected in student performance. Ed White Middle School ranked No. 2 for improved student progress among 40 other middle schools with the same demographics, and it earned State Accountability System distinctions for student achievement in English, math and social studies.

Restorative circles are one key method implemented at Ed White Middle School. Led by an adult facilitator, a restorative circle brings together the students in conflict in a setting that emphasizes mutual respect, deep listening, and the search for a consensus-based solution. The solution agreed upon is then written in a binding document that all circle participants sign and promise to uphold.

Stephanie Frogge, who was the Restorative Discipline coordinator at Ed White Middle School, says that students embraced the approach and even added their own original contributions. They came up with the idea of a form they could fill out to request a restorative circle whenever they felt there was a situation that needed to be addressed.

According to Frogge, “circling it” soon became a popular phrase at Ed White Middle School.

“There was this tense situation between a sixth- and a seventh-grader,” Frogge remembers. “And the older girl said ‘I could fight you, but I’m not going to do it. I’m going to circle it.”