From Zero Tolerance to Restorative Justice: Transforming Camp Disciplinary Policies

From Zero Tolerance to Restorative Justice: Transforming Camp Disciplinary Policies

It seems at camp, we more often than not, lean into how things have always been done than institute change. This can be said about many facets of camp: programming, hiring, marketing, and generally any systems that we, as camp professionals, may have inherited or walked into when taking the jobs we have. In a sense, this can be a good thing, right? Especially perhaps during your first year at a camp where it’s easier to lean into the way things have always been done and take a back seat to learn those nuances as you go. I think now, though, we’re seeing that just going along with how things have always been done can be detrimental to overall growth and important initiatives like JEDI/DEI work, among others. 

Zero Tolerance Policies at Summer Camp

One aspect of camp I’ve been thinking about in this regard are disciplinary policies and the seemingly subtle but totally harmful effects they can have on our camper population. Most camps I’ve worked at or have had exposure to operate under the “zero tolerance” policy which usually looks like not allowing campers to stay at camp if they cross a certain behavior threshold. That threshold more often than not is framed vaguely as “bullying” and that if a camper conducts themself in such a manner, there is no conversation or wiggle room in the policy and the camper will be sent home. This type of policy structure is similar in the school system, where if a student engages in behavior that falls somewhere along the plot diagram of “zero tolerance” they’re suspended for a specific amount of time, or could even be subject to an expulsion hearing. And this has me thinking… What’s working within this system?

Zero Tolerance Policies in Action

A few years back, when I was an age group director at a YMCA Camp in Michigan, I had a situation come up where one camper was physically violent to their cabin mate (let’s call this camper “Joe” and their cabin mate “Bill”). Joe got extremely frustrated with Bill and hit him in the face. Bill, having just got struck, hit Joe back. Under the policy of that camp, I was expected to send both campers home, as both campers engaged in physical violence which clearly fell under our “zero tolerance” policy. But that didn’t sit well with me. I thought to myself, "Hang on a second… Why would I send Bill home under some weird technicality when he was simply defending himself?" 

In the end, I went against our policy, and kept Bill at camp and sent Joe home. Thinking about that now though, what did anyone learn in that situation? Joe may have learned that being violent with someone is completely unacceptable… But he didn’t learn how his actions affected Joe, or his counselors, or other cabin mates, or any other campers that witnessed the situation. Joe also wasn’t given the opportunity to discuss why he felt like his only option in that moment was to hurt Bill, instead of seeking help, and Bill certainly didn’t get to explain his side of things to Joe.

So did that policy work? Sure, the “threat” at the time was removed from camp, but did anyone feel good about it? As the adult in the room, did I facilitate any sort of restorative practice? The sad but truthful answer is no. And how often does this happen at camp? We send campers away as a solution to the issue at hand, and fail to facilitate any sort of learning experience.

Where Did Zero Tolerance Policies Come From?

“Zero tolerance” policies have been around since the Reagan Administration when the War on Drugs was first introduced. Schools were given federal legislation to follow for disciplinary procedures/actions in response to specific behaviors/actions from students. There has been a lot of discussion around if these policies work and if they’re actually harmful to the overall health and well-being of the students.

What's the Alternative to Zero Tolerance?

There have even been some initiatives to help counter these policies, like PBIS (positive behavior interventions and supports) where the goal is to set systems in place that support students in preventing unwanted behavior before it even happens. In the camp industry, we’ve kind of done this too. I’ve seen camps implement a staffing system that consists of a person (or multiple people) who are on the “behavior support team” (or something similarly named). The goal of these staff members is to support counselors in times of need, and provide strategies to manage the behavior in the future. Some camps are making even bigger strides, and moving towards instituting a Restorative Justice model to their behavior management systems/ policies.

Restorative Justice is Kind of... Scary

I’ll be the first to admit that Restorative Justice is kind of… Scary. Not really the concept of it, but the implementation of it. When I put my Camp Director hat on, I think about alllll the parent phone calls and emails I’d get if I changed our “zero tolerance” policy to one that leans into Restorative Justice and facilitating conflict circles. I’m sure some parents would be on board, but what about the parents who aren’t cool with having their kid get hit in the face, and then having the perpetrator stay? I think this is where we come to a moral crossroads in thinking, well who do I serve in this situation? The parent or the child? But I actually don’t think that’s the correct question to ask, because if we are serving the child, aren’t we also simultaneously serving the parents? Teaching our campers how to navigate through conflict is a life skill, one that they probably aren’t learning anywhere else, certainly not in our current school systems. 

Shifting from Zero Tolerance to Restorative Justice: An Action Plan

Ditching “zero tolerance” and moving across the spectrum towards Restorative Justice takes time, and a lot of intention. When I wanted to institute this policy shift, I created a four-part action plan:

  1. Audit current disciplinary policies and question whether there are harmful effects stemming from instituting such policies at your camp. You can use this reflection sheet to help guide you in that process. 
  2. Send that reflection sheet to major stakeholders in your program- campers, staff, parents, etc.- and compile the data. This part can feel scary or awkward. If you’re uncomfortable sending out to campers and their families, at minimum, gauge your staff.
  3. Use the data to support why you’re making a change. Chances are, you’re going to find that the “zero tolerance” policy isn’t really serving anybody. And now, with actual hard data, you have clear reason and support for instituting change. Take it to your supervisor, take it to the board, show them why it’s important that your organization makes this shift.
  4. Consult with professionals to attain training and guidance in implementing a Restorative Justice system at your camp. I think this is the most important step, because without proper training or consultation, you might not implement these systems in a truly useful/ proper way. Plus, when you partake in training and consultation, you and your organization are supporting these initiatives and the professionals running them.

After going through these action steps, return to the reflection sheet to audit your new policies and procedures. I would suggest doing this every year to make sure you’re remaining intentional in the delivery of these systems, and making sure they’re working for you and your camp.

Looking to talk to other camp people who have made the switch to restorative practices?

Many of our members have, and it comes up a lot in our members meetings!

Maggie MitchellMaggie Mitchell

Resource Leader

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