A renewed debate over discipline in schools is taking place across the country as a backlash against zero-tolerance policies gains momentum.

At issue is the use of suspensions to deal with students who are deemed to be "willfully defiant," a nebulous term that can include such behavior as talking back to teachers and breaking classroom rules. On the heels of national research suggesting that suspensions are administered unequally and inconsistently, some school districts — most notably Los Angeles Unified — have retreated from hard-line policies.

School discipline is always a tricky issue. The pendulum swings from tough tactics to softer approaches and back again, rarely settling on a perfect balance of justice, accountability and effectiveness.

The 1999 Columbine school shootings set the wave of modern zero-tolerance policies in motion. Originally intended to apply to the most serious offenses, such as violent or threatening behavior, carrying weapons or distributing drugs, these policies over time broadened to include less egregious behavior such as rudeness and truancy.

That development has invited criticism that all behavioral problems are being treated with the sledgehammer approach, akin to putting misdemeanors on the same level as serious crimes. Education activists and researchers contend that such overzealous policies feed a host of ill effects, from declining graduation rates to overcrowded prisons.

Just last month, for example, yet another minor media storm erupted over the issue when a Virginia second-grader was suspended for pretending his pencil was a gun.

But more often the perceived problems with zero tolerance are less newsworthy, centering on the overuse of suspensions to deal with everyday behavioral issues when a more nuanced approach would suffice.

"We went too far," said Jane Garland, Newport-Mesa's director of outreach and advocacy programs. "We're using suspensions too much."

Indeed, Newport-Mesa's suspension rate of 4.7%, or 862 students, was higher than any other district in Orange County last year, Garland said. In part that's because, as a basic-aid district that's financed by local tax revenue, Newport-Mesa doesn't sacrifice state funding when students aren't in school.

Suspensions had become a crutch for dealing with a host of behavioral issues, she said.

"If you send a kid home for using a curse word, what's it going to do? Unless it's dangerous, suspensions don't work."

Also ineffective, Garland said, is the practice of rotating misbehaving students from campus to campus, which does nothing to address the root of the problem.

This school year suspensions are down by about 40% from last year, a decrease that Garland believes is attributable to the district's shift to a "restorative justice" approach.

Restorative justice is a high-minded term that in practice requires digging deeper into problematic behavior in an attempt to find a fitting response. It might involve investigating the source of a student's problems and crafting an individualized solution that focuses on underlying issues.

That effort might require looking into a student's home environment, relationships with other students and other factors that often cause kids to act out. Once the problem is diagnosed, a strategy involving a mix of discipline, monitoring, communication and ongoing support might be implemented. Outside sources, including mental health professionals and social workers, are sometimes called to assist.

"The idea of restorative justice is to look at the whole child, and what can we do to fix" the issues leading to misbehavior, Garland said. "I tell teachers: We do differentiated instruction. Why not differentiated discipline?"

She insists this approach isn't a free ride for miscreants. "It's a way to rebuild relationships, whether it's a fight on campus or disagreements with teachers. If we just send them home, we're not dealing with the problem."

Garland, a New Jersey native, appears straight out of central casting for a committed, nurturing, big-hearted educator, a woman who cares so deeply that she gives her cell-phone number to habitually truant students so they can check in with her.

The gray-haired mother of four grown sons and grandmother to eight has overseen various projects, from preschools to Project ASK (Advocates Supporting Kids), since joining the district in 2001.

Garland also supervises the address verification process, which has informed her understanding of the nature of many of the issues facing local kids. One-quarter of Newport-Mesa students don't have permanent addresses; such instability can manifest in numerous ways when the kids are at school.

"These are the kids we can help," she said.

Zero-tolerance advocates contend that softer policies reward bad behavior and are unfair to students who follow the rules. If one kid continually disrupts a classroom, they argue, it's the well-behaved students who suffer.

Garland has heard these arguments many times but believes we can do better. Suspensions have become a reflexive response to a grab bag of issues when other methods are available, she contends.

Indeed, when Garland began pitching restorative justice back in September, she encountered some skepticism. But after much discussion, trial and implementation, teachers and administrators are now "buying in completely," she said.

It's tough to get discipline right. But as a parent, I'm glad that Newport-Mesa is at least attempting to inject some thought and effort into finding a better balance.

Said Garland: "I'm just trying to have a kinder, gentler nation, where we're looking a little deeper and trying to fix the problem."

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.