Bennet, Cohen Introduce Restorative Practices Legislation to Address the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Lawmakers’ Proposal Was Informed by Colorado Educators, Advocates, and Experts

Washington, D.C. –– Today, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and U.S. Representative Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) introduced the Restorative Practices In Schools Act, legislation to help schools and districts build safe, inclusive learning environments and to encourage the use of restorative practices in place of overly harsh punitive discipline policies, like “zero-tolerance,” which often results in disproportionate punishment for minor infractions. 

“When I was superintendent of Denver Public Schools, we worked with students, parents, and community leaders toward dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline by eliminating overly harsh school discipline policies, which push kids out of schools and into the criminal justice system. These policies disproportionately affect students of color, students from disadvantaged families, and students with disabilities,” said Bennet. “This legislation will help Colorado schools build on their work to foster positive and safe environments for our kids and support their efforts to help more students succeed, meet high expectations, and graduate ready for college or a career.”

“It is important to mold student behaviors in an empathetic and understanding way, not through harsh discipline and punishment,” said Cohen. “The school-to-prison pipeline is the result of under-resourced school systems that often lean on police involvement or zero-tolerance policies and deprive students of the attention they need. The Restorative Practices in Schools Act aims to address the need for our elementary and secondary schools to help students develop proactive skills for conflict resolution and promote a positive school climate. It will also reduce recidivism in the juvenile justice system. I am proud to join Senator Bennet in advancing this measure and look forward to seeing its long-term beneficial impact.”

The school-to-prison pipeline funnels students — especially students of color and students with disabilities — out of school and toward the juvenile and criminal justice systems, denying them an education and limiting their future employment opportunities. Overly harsh school discipline policies, the rise of zero-tolerance policies in schools, and racial and ethnic bias all contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. Restorative practices are proactive strategies to prevent misbehavior by improving school climate, building community, and strengthening relationships. The bill seeks to foster a positive school environment, elevate students’ voices, and strengthen all relationships in a school community.

The Restorative Practices in Schools Act of 2022 offers an opportunity to stop the school-to-prison pipeline by reducing out-of-school suspensions and limiting students’ risk of dropout and arrest. The legislation would:

  • Establish competitive grants to help schools and districts build safe, inclusive learning environments and to encourage the use of restorative practices in place of overly harsh punitive discipline policies, like “zero-tolerance,” which often results in disproportionate punishment for minor infractions. These practices include hiring staff to lead restorative practices; implementing restorative practice trainings; and funding antiracist and culturally and linguistically responsive curriculum, material development, and training. The bill also establishes targeted school and student safety standards which schools must meet before receiving a grant. 
  • Prioritize schools and eligible applicants with the greatest demonstrated need. This includes schools that are disproportionately impacted by juvenile and criminal justice systems, and serve high-poverty communities and/or rural communities.
  • Direct the Government Accountability Office to study the school-to-prison-pipeline and research the extent to which evidence-based interventions — such as restorative practices — can improve student achievement and enhance public safety and student well-being. 
  • Establish a data-tracking system at the Department of Education to highlight strong examples of restorative practices in schools and establish guidance on school discipline practices that can dramatically reduce the number of children who are funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline. 

Bennet has held several discussions with Colorado educators, students, elected officials and nonprofit and community leaders to discuss the school-to-prison pipeline and how to address student health and wellbeing. Bennet drafted a bill and consulted with round table participants and stakeholders. In May 2021, Bennet joined U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) in a letter to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Attorney General Merrick Garland asking them to strengthen guidance on nondiscriminatory school discipline and advise schools to focus on restorative justice practices. 

The National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and People for the American Way have endorsed the bill. 

The bill text is available HERE. A summary is available HERE.

"Suspensions are rarely effective at improving student behavior and usually erode relationships.  Students grow and learn when they have trusting relationships with the adults in the system.  A suspended student gets the message that the school doesn't want them, and the adults have given up on them.  The Restorative Practices in Schools Act will help districts implement more effective strategies to reduce suspensions, promote meaningful relationships, and improve student behaviors across the board,” said Phillip Qualman, Superintendent of Eagle County Schools.

"One of the advantages of working in a rural setting is that we have the ability to truly influence an entire community. The successes and failures of our schools are ever-present because we run into our current and past students on a regular basis. This is why the Restorative Practices bill is so instrumental for rural schools because when we rely on traditional discipline practices that funnel students into the school-to-prison pipeline, it negatively affects the entire community. This bill will help mitigate, if not completely eliminate, this problem; which will positively affect many rural communities for generations,” said Sean Woytek, Head of School, Animas High School.

"We are elated to see the manifestation of policy at the federal level that indicates a paradigm shift concerning "honoring the dignity of students" who have been imposed in the school to prison nexus. This Act hones in on "highlighting strong examples of restorative practices in schools...building community, and strengthening relationships" which is necessary for a deepened sense of liberatory and transformational schooling experiences, policies, and processes,” said Dr. Janiece Mackey, Cofounder/Executive Director, Young Aspiring Americans for Social and Political Activism (YAASPA).