Tag Archives: discipline

How One NOLA Charter School Is Shifting the Dialogue on Discipline

USNewsMost of the news you’ve heard about charter schools and discipline has been bad. Very bad. But one school in New Orleans is moving in a different direction with a focus on restorative justice. I spoke with Beth Hawkins about it for this column in U.S. News and World Report, published on Friday.  

Restorative justice practices – approaches to conflict and misbehavior that focus on relationships rather than punishment – are taking hold across the country, but schools continue to struggle with implementation. The phrase “restorative justice” itself is losing meaning: it’s becoming easy to forget that the “restore” part refers to a conflict among people and the need to repair a social harm inflicted on a relationship or community. It’s interactive and dynamic and it depends on the investment of everyone involved.  

In a true restorative justice education space, what looks like a behavior problem has a culture solution. It is unequivocally not about following a new protocol, having students fill out different forms, or renaming the detention room. It requires changing the way that every person in the building relates to one another – students and adults. And doing it in schools means doing it in spaces that host some of our most complex social dynamics: racism, sexism, classism, historical segregation, gentrification, and more.

To be very explicit about it: school discipline is a racial justice issue, and restorative justice is civil rights work. It is deeply personal, often uncomfortable, and implicates both history and power. And if you are the one with history and power on your side, these are all things that are never easy. They shouldn’t be. If it were easy, it would mean you weren’t fully engaged in the authentic self-inquiry necessary to move the work forward.

“Uncomfortable” is an intersection, not a stop sign. You’re right to think that hot feeling under your ribs is your cue that something is wrong, but what you do with that next is where the work begins. We need to prepare our practitioners to be uncomfortable, to retrain them to see that as a sign that they’re doing something right, and then give them the skills to respond to their own discomfort with empathy, kindness, and humility.

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. Continue reading