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Yes, Schools Have an Alternative to Zero Tolerance

We Welcome Derek Slaughter, a high school student from Baltimore.  He calls on a timely issue that is blocking many students’ opportunity to learn. -- Greg

Justice for All
By Derek Slaughter
Throughout my educational career, I have heard my peers say that things aren’t fair or that they have been unjustly punished in schools. Administration being overzealous to implement extreme disciplinary action is a common theme in schools throughout the country, which I have observed in my travels. For this reason the National Student Bill of Rights movement believes in installing restorative justice systems in communities and schools.

The principles of restorative justice require people to look at the root cause of the offender’s actions before the implementation of an arbitrary “punishment.” Through the restorative justice process, there is no need to enact zero tolerance: participants can see that there is a much better alternative. It is important to emphasize that students must be actively involved and engaged in restorative justice systems in order to keep these systems from returning to a regular authoritarian discipline structure.

The heart of any restorative justice system, whether in or out of school, is repairing harm and reconciling the offender and victim. Restorative justice does not equate to a lack of consequences for one’s actions. It takes a different approach to reaching a solution to root problem that causes the offense to occur, rather than solely focusing on the offense.

At my school, Heritage High, students have been trying to establish a student court that will allow students, teachers, and administrators to receive mediation between the offender and the victim. The beauty of a system like this is that students also have the liberty to take teachers and administrators to court for any offense they may commit. This will ensure that all parties in the school feel equally defended by a system they believe in. I am thrilled that the administration of the school is interested in starting the student court. (I do have one criticism, which is based on the administration’s apprehension to allow cases that involve violence to be brought to the student court. I hope that we come to a reasonable agreement for the sake of real restorative justice).

We based our student court proposal on right number 6 in the National Student Bill of Rights:  Students and youth shall have the right to establish systems of restorative justice in schools and communities, shall not be excluded from educational opportunities except by a jury of their peers, and shall not be charged for crimes as adults until the age of 18.


Derek’s message could not come at a more timely moment.  There is a growing movement across the country to advocate for an end to out-of-school suspensions based on three compelling factors:

  • There is no evidence that suspending students from school is beneficial to the student’s education or addresses the state’s, district’s, schools’, or teachers’ need for supports to provide all students an opportunity to learn;
  • The evidence clearly shows that those who are more likely the recipients of out-of-school suspensions are identifiable by race and gender;
  • There are more educationally effective and equitable ways to address disciplinary challenges.

Students need to be in school to learn.  They have a right to an education--and a right to justice.   As the movement grows--in Heritage High in Baltimore and across the country, advocates are pushing for smart and fair disciplinary practices that do not limit a student’s learning time or discriminate based on gender and race. 

Thank you Derek for bringing restorative justice to the forefront of the discussion on alternative disciplinary strategies.  Please join the discussion.  What are other alternative disciplinary strategies?  How have justice and discipline been handled well or not well at your school? 

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