A year later, a dramatic turn around occurred, and Cole Middle School was awarded the outstanding safe school award for all schools in the state of Colorado by Project Pave, a violence prevention organization in Colorado. Student suspensions had been cut in half, and police citations (remember, these are middle school kids barely in their teens) had plummeted 85%.

What happened at Cole M.S. that led to this remarkable change? 

There is not one single item that caused this dramatic improvement in school climate, rather a confluence of initiatives combined with tough leadership at the school level were tipping points: 

1)   A new principal was brought in who combined determination, a capacity to deal with students and families coming from difficult circumstances and the ability to build a team of educators with shared commitments and expectations of student behavior and performance.

2)   A consistent school “climate” initiative and a restorative discipline system were instituted that emphasized re-integrating erring students into the school community through problem solving, face-to-face dialogue between conflicting students and alternative sanctions. Traditional punishment - suspensions and expulsions - were sometimes used, but only as a last resort.

3)   Support services were ramped up, including special education pull-out classes, in-house social workers, afterschool programs and community outreach by staff and local leaders. This kind of effort has been systematized into what is now known as Positive Behavior Support.

A few years later, the conceptual “fulcrums” behind these tipping points were written into the disciplinary policies and procedures governing all schools in the Denver Public School (DPS) system. DPS became the first large urban school district in the U.S. to operationalize restorative discipline on school-based level. The larger context of this effort, as is reflected in Obama’s school discipline efforts centered on restorative justice and positive behavior supports, is to bring the punitive pendulum back towards a balanced and realistic approach to discipline. This change involves a fundamental shift towards promoting positive behavior and students learning from their mistakes rather than legalistic punishment formulas (discipline codes).

The theory behind the changes being championed by Obama and the U.S. department of education, is that behavior change has multiple sources. Only occasionally do administrative/legal disciplinary regimens (detention, suspension expulsion) work, when children have other support systems and family engagement in place. Student support services (social work, psychology and counseling) can also help deal with underlying issues, but therapists are reluctant (rightly so) to be the first line of defense for troubled kids. What has been missing is a way to match the needs of the child with the intervention, a kind of bridge that personalizes the expectations of the community and support kids through the process of change.

As educators, we believe that that even the disciplinary process is a learning opportunity: children and youth need to understand the effects of their actions and learn positive alternatives to violence and aggression. The process that facilitates this kind of learning is called restorative justice (RJ) or restorative discipline, where a student who misbehaves directly faces those affected by his/her misbehavior, whether it is another student, teacher or an entire class. Through a structured dialogue emphasizing the student’s obligation to repair the harm caused, students are given opportunities to re-engage their classmates, teachers and the wider school community rather than simply being thrown into the streets. At the same time, Positive Behavior Supports provides administrators tools to create a school climate that supports positive behavior and matches more intensive interventions for the students that need them.

 After the Columbine shootings in Colorado in 2000, schools, like Cole Middle School where I worked, adopted strict zero-tolerance policies against violence, primarily relying on suspension, expulsion and even court involvement. Most people don’t realize, but the standard punishment for a first offense of fighting in many schools is an automatic 2-week suspension along with a police citation, and in some cases, direct expulsion. These heavy-handed policies had the unintended consequence of pushing students out of constructive school environments into unstructured and unsupervised situations. This proves to be a particularly problematic and destructive scenario for urban and inner city youth of color, kids already disengaged and burdened by negative social and familial forces beyond their control. In a very real sense, this became an entry-point in the school to prison pipeline. What Obama’s efforts at the national level are attempting through the supportive school discipline initiative is to level the playing field and re-balance the scales of justice so that schools, parents and students can reap the rewards of an American education. This is hardly educational overkill, it is simple common sense - and the right thing to do.

Jeremy Simons is a former Restorative Justice Coordinator in Denver Public Schools now working in the southern Philippines as a peace building trainer supporting cultural processes of restoration and healing. He can be contacted at justpeaceadvocate@gmail.com.