I sent a letter to the editors of the The New York Times responding to its May 29, 2013, editorial about "The School-to-Prison Pipeline."

"I was pleased to see your editorial highlighting the need for schools to change their approach to school discipline, as recommended by the NY City School-Justice Partnership task force, but the discussion is framed in reactive terms, such as a 'graduated response protocol.' Rather, the first step in reducing misbehavior and violence in schools is to proactively build social capital.

In the early 1980s, I co-authored Toughlove, to advise parents and other adults dealing with troubled youth, but in the years since there has been more tough than love in our nation's schools. 'Restorative practices' that build relationships and restore community have been implemented at a growing number of schools--achieving dramatic decreases in bullying, misbehavior, crime and violence (see Improving School Climate research outcomes). The task force report does cite 'restorative justice' as an effective response to wrongdoing, but restorative practices work best when they emphasize prevention."

Three New York City officials also responded with a letter to the editor, defending the fact that the city had already begun a move away from zero tolerance. But they, too, focused on putting out fires rather than fostering a respectful, cooperative environment that reduces the likelihood of fires in the first place.

Simple strategies, such as the use of restorative circles in classrooms, provide opportunity for students to communicate with their peers and teachers about feelings and concerns, reducing the anxiety and misunderstanding that produce tension and conflict in schools. Aatirah Wilson, in a film about the Transformation of West Philadelphia High School, explains, "When something's bothering me circles help me relax, because I'm talking to somebody. With me, when I am frustrated or sad and all these other emotions, I need to talk to somebody." (see

Combined with a discipline system that stops treating misbehavior as crime, we can reduce the alienation that drains so many young people down the school-to-prison pipeline.