Why Schools Should Be Going Around in Circles

“Before we had circles at our school, there was a lot of fights, riots, problems. It was just a lot of confusion.”

“I think circles help, because it expresses a student’s feelings and stuff more. Instead of violence and stuff, just talking in a circle could avoid violence.”

“Now that we have circles at our school, it is more like calm and collected, and we get to talk around our peers and staff respectfully and tell them how we feel and what’s the problem.”

“Circles have changed our class because we’ve had to talk to one another. It’s not just the teachers. It’s all of us together. So we’ve kind of had to come together as a team and talk.” [1]

West Philadelphia High School was considered the worst in the city. Suspensions and expulsions did not stop the frequent fights and fire-setting. A TV reporter said he and a camera person used to wait near the school on slow news days, because there was a good chance of a serious incident to report.

The good news is that “restorative practices” came to West Philadelphia.

In the summer of 2008, the International Institute for Restorative Practices taught the school staff to use circles and related strategies. Students began to have real conversations with staff and with each other. The conversations improved relationships and built a sense of community.

In the first year of using restorative practices, violent acts and serious incidents were down 52 percent, and in the next year, were down another 45 percent. For the first time in eight years, West Philadelphia High School was no longer on the government’s “persistently dangerous schools list.” [2]

The use of restorative practices in schools is helping to end America’s disastrous experiment with so-called “zero tolerance,” which began in the 1990’s. The theory of zero tolerance was that if schools responded to even the smallest wrongdoing with harsh punishment, such as suspensions and expulsions, the school atmosphere would improve. But it too often resulted in absurd punishments, such as 9-year-old students in Colorado being suspended from school for pointing their fingers like guns on the playground, and a 14-year-old honor student in Texas facing five months in a military-style boot camp for bringing a small amount of alcohol to school in a bottle of soda pop. [3]

Ironically, a report from the American Psychological Association found that zero tolerance is more likely to increase bad behavior, school dropout rates and involvement of students with the criminal justice system. [4] The severe punishment of all misbehavior—no matter how minor—does more harm than good, because it poisons relationships in the school community.

Restorative practices, on the other hand, hold students accountable for their behavior, but in a way that maintains their dignity and good relationships with staff. A large federal research study showed that when schools promote better relationships, there is less violence, less drug and alcohol use and less teenage pregnancy. [5] In fact, students in schools with harsh discipline policies report feeling less safe at school than students in schools with more moderate policies.

But, restorative practices can be done badly, so that responses to wrongdoing become meaningless. It’s critical that our implementation of these strategies be done well and that we evaluate the results. I’m excited about a large-scale experiment in which half the schools in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are adopting restorative practices, with the results being compared to the other half of the city’s schools.

It doesn’t help us when people simply demand more punishment or more restorative practices just based on their beliefs. We need to look carefully at what works, what doesn’t, how and why, and then follow that evidence with high quality implementation.

Look for future blog posts, in which I’ll report on the outcomes from this and other experiments. That’s how we can successfully build a new reality.


[1] International Institute for Restorative Practices, The Transformation of West Philadelphia High School: A Story of Hope, 2009. A link to the 9 minute YouTube video is available on the main webpage of safersanerschools.org.

[2] http://www.education.pa.gov/Teachers%20-%20Administrators/No%20Child%20Left%20Behind/Pages/Unsafe%20Schools/Persistently-Dangerous-Schools.aspx#.VsI0IRiEMs9

[3] VOMA Connections. Winter, 2003. No. 13. Restorative Practices in Schools: An Antidote to Zero Tolerance. Retrieved from: http://www.voma.org/docs/connect13.pdf

[4] American Psychological Association, Task Force on Zero Tolerance. (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist, 63(9), 858-862. http://restorativeworks.net/2013/09/restorative-practices-school-prison-pipeline/

[5] McNeely, Clea A., Nonnemaker, James M., & Blum, Robert W. (2002). “Promoting School Connectedness: Evidence from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health,” Journal of School Health, 72(4). Retrieved from: http://bit.ly/2byRMsq