Reviving tough love in tough schools

At City Springs Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore, where 99 percent of students are from families with incomes below the poverty line, there were 86 student suspensions in 2008-09. In 2009-10, there were only 10 suspensions.

Twenty students at City Springs were suspended for fighting in 2008-09 and 16 more for insubordination. A year later, only two were suspended for fighting and none for insubordination. In that same year, the number of City Springs students functioning at grade level tripled.

What happened? City Springs — a Baltimore Curriculum Project neighborhood charter school — implemented a program of "restorative practices."

Can we agree that it is less expensive to run a safe school than a dangerous one, thus saving taxpayers money? Can we agree that before test scores can rise, students have to feel safe at school? If we can, then programs for improving school safety, such as restorative practices, become not frills but necessities.

The gains at City Springs did not happen because of "zero tolerance." Zero tolerance is a concept that makes a nice bumper sticker. It's not great public policy, however. It does not make schools safer.

Years ago, I helped to promote a term and a movement that you may have heard of: "toughlove." In the years since, sadly, there has been more "tough" than "love." The results, for schools, have not been impressive. Zero tolerance has been the rule in schools for some time. But in most cases, there have not been reductions in fights, disruptive behavior or other violent acts as a result.

We have found instead that a combination of high limit-setting and high encouragement pays dividends in school safety. We call it restorative practices. It builds social capital, emotional well-being and civic participation. It builds community in a world starved for community. It gives young people the tools to solve many of their own problems. Isn't that a primary goal of education?

The philosophy is simple. People respond best when you do things with them and not to them or for them. Restorative practice gives students responsibilities. It combines high expectations with lots of support.

Think back to the people in your life who had the greatest positive effect on you. They are the ones who had high expectations for you, who were tough but were also supportive. You knew they cared.

In restorative practices, unacceptable behavior is confronted. But the students themselves, including victims, perpetrators and others who have been affected, work together to determine how to make things right. Students assume responsibility for their behavior in a process that is supportive and not demeaning. That makes all the difference.

This is not permissiveness. Wrongdoing is not tolerated. Solutions, however, are arrived at collaboratively, generating "buy in" from the people involved and others who are impacted. There are protocols and processes involved in making restorative practices work in schools. They can be learned and applied. As this happens, the school climate changes for the better.

This is not mere theory. It's happening now at schools in New York City, Detroit and San Francisco; also in Australia, Canada, Hungary, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. And it's working at City Springs school in Baltimore.

Restorative practice does not eliminate conflict. It does, however, provide a successful way to resolve conflict. Humanity has developed science and technology faster than its social skills. We have an urgent need for better ways to manage our relationships and our decision making. Our students deserve it. Our future requires it.

Ted Wachtel is president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, a graduate school in Bethlehem, Pa. His email is

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