Minor Crimes

There aren’t many places in this country where you can be properly arrested for talking back, but a public school is one of them. In fact, there’s a long list of otherwise-lawful behaviors that become arrestable offenses if you do them while you’re a student at school.  Short of being arrested, you might be suspended or expelled. These school-based discipline actions might be viewed as better for kids than an arrest, but for many kids, they’re just things that happen to them before an arrest. Ordinary childhood behaviors and predictable reactions to trauma and stress have become life-altering fail points for many of our most vulnerable young people.

When controlling for campus and individual student characteristics, data reveal that a student who was suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation – a violation that does not have a mandated school removal penalty but is instead left to the determination of school site staff – was nearly three times as likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year (paraphrased from a 2011 Council of State Governments Justice Center/PPRI report).

School discipline policies – like any other policies – fail when they misunderstand the problem.  At best, zero tolerance approaches and punitive practices can be defended as a kind of triage: that we’ve got to take drastic action to protect the education experiences of the majority of students from disruption and distraction. But that mindset has two major flaws.

First, it discards an entire group of students who are also in our care. Who is educating the disrupters and the distractors? To be clear, we can all agree that there are some students for whom a traditional school setting just isn’t appropriate. But that doesn’t mean that we can collectively abdicate responsibility for their academic achievement.  Where do students go when we send them out of the school building, and why don’t we care about them once they’re gone?  Most of the schools-of-last-resort where those students end up (if they land in any school at all) are uninspired warehouses of worksheets and monotonous activities disconnected from life and learning.  Where is our commitment to providing rigorous and relevant schools for them?

Second, this view correctly identifies a problem (students who misbehave) but suffers from a mismatch with reality when it locates that problem within an individual child.  For a specific kid in a specific context, it might be right that s/he needs a punitive consequence.  But as a matter of policy, it’s wrong.  We know too much about the impact of trauma and poverty on cognitive development and executive functioning to continue to make this attribution error.  For the most part, these kids are rational actors operating in unreasonable circumstances.  They are making thoughtful decisions informed by what they know, what they fear, and the patterns of cause-and-effect that have been effective for them in the past.

This isn’t just theoretical.  Zero tolerance policies and myopically punitive discipline systems don’t work. Not only are they ineffective for individual students in the short term, but they’re harmful to society over timeA school suspension doesn’t just not deter bad behavior, it exacerbates it.  And, for those of you who still feel like it’s an unfortunate – but necessary – sacrifice to make in the name of school culture and student achievement, reducing reliance on punitive school removals is correlated with higher district achievement.  According to a November 2015 report by the Civil Rights Project, now based at UCLA, this “inverse relationship between suspensions and achievement held true each year for every racial/ethnic subgroup, and especially for Black students.”

So what do we do instead?  Critics of restorative justice practices say that the result is empowered bullies who believe that they’re invincible to punitive discipline and disrupt the education experience of other students. These same critics go on to say that reformed school discipline policies enacted, in part, to reduce the racial disparities of school removals are just PC over-sensitivities run amok.  It might be easy to dismiss these inflammatory anecdotes as poorly-veiled racism (and maybe they are), but it’s also unfair to expect teachers to muddle through the complexities of race, justice, and human psychology alone.

Last month, WestEd issued a report that captured practitioners’ perspectives of the promise and challenges of reforming school discipline practices. The majority of practitioners surveyed believed that restorative justice strategies were successful, and many stated that it was too early to know. Only 5% responded that they did not believe that the practices were successful.

But more than half of the respondents said that implementation is a challenge because they lack staff buy-in. Even more said that their staff don’t have enough training. And intuition suggests that both statements probably describe the same group of people.

Education as an industry is never short on innovation and good ideas.  But a good idea doesn’t become a good practice without thoughtful strategies for meaningful implementation.  Restorative justice is no exception. This isn’t just a discipline strategy, it’s a culture shift and a new way of thinking about relationships that depends wholly on the adults in the building. If they don’t understand it and don’t believe in it, then they aren’t actually implementing it. And when you don’t implement a new approach – well, you’re probably going to be frustrated when it doesn’t work. 

While most survey respondents in WestEd’s cohort believed that a whole school approach to restorative justice – one that changes culture and interpersonal dynamics in all relationships on the school campus – is the more effective strategy, less than 20% report that “all teachers” or “all school staff” are trained. Training alone might not be enough.  But it’s certainly a necessary first step. The answer here isn’t to give up on our teachers, our schools, or our students; it’s to start trying.