Long Overdue: Texas Should Prioritize Safer Schools Through Restorative Justice, Not Zero Tolerance

A therapist with hand on a young man's shoulder

TCJC’s Jay Jenkins was recently quoted in an article by NBC News about Dennis Rivera Sarmiento, a high school student who was arrested in Houston and later placed in immigration detention. Allegedly, a female classmate called him a racial slur and threw a sports drink at him, resulting in an altercation between the two students. Dennis tried to report the incident to a Houston ISD police officer but, instead of receiving help, he was arrested.

I cannot help but think how differently this situation could have played out had the professionals within the school been trained to prioritize a restorative approach over one of zero tolerance

Restorative justice is founded on a basic principle: when someone has inflicted harm on others, the best response is to repair the harm done, make whole those who have experienced harm, hold people responsible for their actions, and mitigate the possibility of the behavior re-occurring. This stands in stark contrast to how the current system operates.

Imagine an alternative to Dennis’ scenario where there is no need for a police presence at school because the administration and teachers are trained in restorative justice. They would know how to deescalate the situation between the two students and understand that there are possibly other factors at play in their interaction that resulted in unhealthy responses. They would understand that teenagers are impulsive and may not be considering the consequences of their actions. Instead of jumping to harsh punishment, they would provide resources to improve the students’ future interactions – eventually bringing the students together with a trained mediator to discuss how each person’s actions made the other person feel, and empowering them to find a solution to repair the harm in their relationship. Each person would walk away with more empathy and understanding about what happened to them, which helps in the healing process. They would have increased confidence in being able to solve conflict on their own, and in healthy ways. Most importantly, neither student would be arrested and taken to jail.

As we know, that was not the result in Dennis’ scenario. The criminal justice response always requires a guilty party, whereas a restorative justice approach would take both students’ actions into consideration and hold them responsible for making amends. Arresting Dennis isolates him, and deprives both students of the opportunity to find a healthy way to resolve conflict. Such an outcome is impossible when the individuals are permanently separated and the underlying issues are not addressed.

At this point, the over-criminalization of normal adolescent behavior puts youth at increasing risk of justice system involvement – simply perpetuating and strengthening the school-to-prison pipeline. Moreover, as we continue to miss key opportunities to teach youth how to resolve conflict, we ensure that the pipeline remains entrenched in Texas. This is all the more unfortunate for an undocumented student, who is likely to find him- or herself in the school-to-deportation pipeline.

A thoroughly researched and outcome-driven alternative exists, and it would benefit Texas schools, students, families, and communities to adopt it.

While implementation of restorative justice in each school will look different based on the specific needs of the students, it is possible for entire school districts to adopt this approach. Numerous areas, including Denver, St. Louis, and West Oakland, have been successful at whole-school implementation. Each evaluated their needs; pitched their short and long-term vision to key school personnel; solicited buy-in from the administration; developed and employed restorative policies; and invested in training for everyone working with students.

Texas would be wise to follow the lead of these school districts. Join us in advocating for school restorative justice programs over school police departments.


About the Author

Kerrie Judice

Kerrie Judice


Kerrie served as a Policy Associate with TCJE, where she focused on youth justice issues, having had eight years of experience working directly with kids in the foster care system.