Discipline: From zero tolerance to restorative justice

September 4, 2015

In this 2009 Catalyst photo, 6th-graders in an all-boys class at Ryerson Elementary on the West Side present their work to classmates. The principal created single-gender classes to improve discipline.
Photo by Cristina Rutter
In this 2009 Catalyst photo, 6th-graders in an all-boys class at Ryerson Elementary on the West Side present their work to classmates. The principal created single-gender classes to improve discipline.


Conventional wisdom suggests that suspensions are primarily a problem in high schools. However, the advent in the late 1990s of zero-tolerance discipline policies in Chicago Public Schools had a surprising effect: a steep increase in the number of elementary student suspensions.

Between 1996 and 2003, elementary school suspensions rose from 34 per 1,000 students to 64. Meanwhile, as the district began in the early 2000s to push high schools to find alternatives to suspension, high school suspensions fell slightly, from 117 per 1,000 students to 94.

African-American males were most heavily impacted. In 2003, more than half of students suspended in CPS across all grade levels were African-American boys, a rate that was twice the district average. (All data for these analyses were provided by the Illinois State Board of Education.)

As Catalyst noted in its May / June 2009 issue of Catalyst In Depth, studies have established a strong correlation between suspensions, course failures and dropping out. For one, suspensions keep students out of class, often leaving them behind.

By 2006, CPS had officially scrapped its zero-tolerance policy in favor of a restorative justice approach, which encourages students to make restitution and reflect on their behavior in order to improve it. Yet by 2008, the number of suspensions throughout the district had nearly doubled from 2003. And racial disparities persisted: in 2008, one of every four African-American male students was suspended at least once.

While district officials suggested the rise in suspensions merely reflected more accurate reporting, experts countered that schools still had strong incentives to under-report their suspension numbers.

The shocking upward spike prompted local and national advocates to call for an investigation by the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. Local youth advocates also launched a campaign pushing for federal and state policy to address excessive and disproportionate use of suspensions.

See “Suspensions up in CPS,” Catalyst December 2004 and “Black male conundrum,” Catalyst June 2009


By 2013, district leaders were trumpeting a 23 percent decline in suspensions within district-run high schools, but overlooked the fact that those high schools had seen an enrollment decline of more than 6,000 students.

Meanwhile, enrollment increased at charter high schools, where CPS did not collect data on suspensions.

At the same time, suspensions continued to increase in the elementary grades — even in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, although the CPS Student Code of Conduct prohibits suspending such young students.

Some good news arrived in the 2014 and 2015 school years — official numbers of suspensions dropped and a report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research showed that teachers and students felt safer as harsh discipline practices eased.

On the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education teamed up with the Department of Justice to produce guidelines aimed at reducing  suspensions and ensuring greater equity in school disciplinary practices — as the issues were national, not just in Chicago.

See “For the record: digging deeper into suspensions data,” Catalyst February 2014 and “Suspensions down, schools feel safer, but charter data still absent,” Catalyst March 2015


In August, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed SB 100, a far-reaching effort to reduce suspensions and expulsions statewide. The new law gives all Illinois public schools, including charter schools, one year to update their discipline policies to comply with the new requirements. As reported in Education Week, they are:

  • an end to zero-tolerance policies that mandate suspension or expulsion for particular offenses
  • a three-day limit to suspensions unless “other appropriate and available behavioral and disciplinary interventions have been exhausted” and the student presents a safety threat
  • eliminating fines and fees as consequences for disciplinary offenses
  • increased reporting requirements when schools choose to suspend students, including details of other strategies used before choosing to suspend
  • creating policies to help students re-engage when returning from suspension, expulsion or placement in an alternative school

Though advocates hailed the new law as an important step toward ending the “school-to-prison pipeline,” enforcing it will likely present challenges. A big hurdle is the scant resources available for training and supporting staff in restorative justice practices.

In 2014, CPS revised its policies to prohibit suspending children in 2nd grade or younger, yet 368 kindergartners were suspended that year, including 55 for five days or more.

See “Take 5: Budget passes, discipline bill signed, principal independence,” Catalyst August 2015 and “School Discipline of Young Children Questioned,” Better Government Association July 2015

  • Concerned Parent

    Schools beg for support from networks with students who are having behavioral issues to the point of attacking other students, almost on a daily basis. Support was not given. The network would not allow any suspension for the assault to the other students or to a school employee.
    Also, what can a school do when the parent refuses to allow the child counseling or social support?

  • Northside

    Haven’t we learned our lesson from the 90’s …one size doesn’t fit all. every case must be looked at on an individual case. students can’t get the message that they will never be punished or held accountable for their actions. we used to have a principal who would sweet talk the kids in her office. then the kids would come back, just as disruptive as before…but they would literally ask to be sent to the principal. in the end we can’t forget the truly innocent victims, the fellow classmates who must suffer the constant bullying and disruption brought upon by students.

  • What Can Be Done?

    All that I can see is that they are making it harder to suspend kids. In some schools students are cursing out adults, destroying school property, bullying classmates and physically hurting other students and consequences are minimal. This is not setting students up for real life because in real life there are consequences to your actions. I understand no suspensions for minor things, but sometimes it goes to far. Would these policy makers want their children subject to these behaviors? Yes, I am a supporter of restorative justice. But schools are trying to still figure out how to implement it and many struggle fitting character education into their schedules because expected time allocations for other subjects. Its really hard for some schools, because chronic behavior problems have been occurring for generations and can not be fixed overnight. So while these schools try to get it right, the students that come ready to learn suffer tremendously. It’s sad. The resources are not there. The only reason there is a sharp drop in suspensions is because the system won’t allow you to issue a suspension until after so many infractions and sometimes the behavior was at the level that a suspension would be appropriate. By this time, the kids have amped it up because in their minds, they have gotten away with it. Some try to implement consequences, but are limited. You can’t take away recess because someone will quickly point out, that it goes against policy to take away recess! Some try to do before and after school detention for different things, but some of the parents will say my kids can’t come early or they can’t stay after because the parent works or sometimes because its a inconvenience. Many students in some schools struggle with very serious problems and again there are not as many resources available, although there is a great need.