Changes to the Jefferson County Public Schools’ code of conduct for managing discipline are being considered this year, and officials say they will likely not budge on removing zero-tolerance policy language which research shows has been be ineffective.

However, school board member Linda Duncan–who is also a member of the committee considering changes–does say the new code will likely provide teachers and staff alternative ways to deal with trouble students, including adding restorative practice language.

The JCPS code of conduct is signed by every student at the beginning of the year and is formally looked at every couple years, Duncan says. The code says how students are expected to behave and how staff is expected to respond to certain discipline issues. 

The zero-tolerance policies that JCPS and most school districts nationwide have in place have been called ineffective and were part of discussion around the School-to-Prison Pipeline testimony heard by the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee for the first time last year.

Some school districts around the country have been implementing certain strategies to move away from the zero-tolerance philosophy, which became popular in the 1990s following certain school shootings and passage of the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act, which requires districts to expel students who bring a gun to school.

Duncan says the committee is now considering writing restorative practice language into the code this year, allowing schools or teachers to be more creative when disciplining students.

“We have sections in our code of conduct that have little pluses beside them that allow for teacher discretion. Everything doesn’t have to be a referral. The teacher can handle things in a way that he or she feels comfortable with,” she says.

But Duncan says zero-tolerance policies will likely remain intact. 

While putting restorative practice language into the district’s code is a step in the right direction, it isn’t enough, says Chris Kolb, co-president of Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together. 

CLOUT has been pushing the district to move away from these policies and held a seminar last year at Spaulding University headlined by Beverly Manigo with the International Institute for Restorative Practices, a Pennsylvania-based graduate school that has trained schools and communities nationwide. 

The seminar was attended by JCPS principals and several others interested in the concept of restorative practices. However, the cost remains an issue and would set schools back around $80,000. In theory, those schools could then turn around and train others, says Kolb.

But the issue for Kolb lies in JCPS research that shows exclusionary discipline–which is exacerbated by zero-tolerance policies–are ineffective and harmful to students.

“In effect what they’re saying is that their own policies are increasing the dropout rate. So we would hope they would move away from those policies,” he says.

In that same research JCPS says restorative practices are increasing in education systems nationwide–like in Denver and Baltimore and with some success–but that there’s still not enough research to say it’s more effective than the current policy.

Both Kolb and Duncan agree there are some issues that are non-negotiable and deserve a punitive response, like bringing a weapon to school or assaulting a teacher. But Kolb says the discipline code the district sets should follow the lead of other schools moving away from enforcing strict zero-tolerance policies.

Duncan says the committee expects to complete its work in April.