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If you haven’t yet emailed Markese Long to join us on Thursday for our Restorative Justice workshop, do it today! We’re looking forward to a great conversation about Pittsburgh Public Schools plans to implement restorative practices (ie. teaching children skills to resolve conflict and hold each other accountable). Over the summer, we were lucky to have Notre Dame student journalist, Kate Hardiman do an in-depth overview of restorative justice practices. It’s a great primer on what we’ve learned from our teens at TeenBloc and our School Works research and what’s working nationally.
What is Restorative Justice?
Restorative justice practices deviate from the traditional, strictly punitive procedures common in schools today. Founded in the criminal justice system, restorative justice works to reform offenders, understanding the reasoning behind harmful decisions and emphasizing the healing of relationships. In recent years, educators across the country have found an alternative to “zero tolerance” policies in restorative justice methodology.
Restorative Justice vs. Zero Tolerance
The traditional approach, also known as zero tolerance approach, is a tangible cause and effect relationship between wrongdoing and punishment. Punitive outcomes often include removal from the classroom, whether it be through in-school suspension or expulsion. The restorative justice philosophy addresses the cause of behavior, works to restore the relationships involved, helps the student catch up on missed work, and keeps students in class. Affirming the intrinsic worth of the offender, rather than inspiring feelings of guilt, is one of the main foci of restorative justice.
Zero Tolerance Policies in Pittsburgh Public Schools
In a 2013 survey, Pittsburgh Public Schools responded that they count between 1-5 of the following transgressions as zero tolerance behaviors, including fighting, swearing at teachers, disrespect and class cuts, electronics and theft, and disruption and bullying. Students who violate these areas of school code are subject to suspension after their first offense. A positive correlation exists between schools with higher numbers of zero tolerance policies and higher rates of chronic absenteeism.
The result of zero tolerance behaviors are “explicit, predetermined punishments for specific violations of school rules, regardless of the situation or context of the behavior.” PPS currently relies on such predetermined punishments such as out of school suspension and removal from school by police for certain violations related to weapons or violence.
The ACLU of Pittsburgh highlighted the over-utilization of zero tolerance policies in their report entitled “Beyond Zero Tolerance.” Zero tolerance policies were initiated as a swift, decisive course of action. Today however, they have a much broader reach and are no longer confined to the most serious situations.
The zero tolerance movement has grown the presence of police in public schools exponentially. Originally intended to mitigate weapons threats following the wake of in-school shootings, now a seemingly permanent police force are more likely to overreact and suspend students for minor offenses. Young people enter the juvenile or adult criminal justice system when police remove them from school, a path drastically different than if school administrators were to administer punishment.
The ACLU advances that removing students from school and feeding them into the criminal justice system has neither prevented nor deterred future misbehavior. Such action fails to address the problem’s source, namely the reason for the child’s misbehavior, and results in a loss of learning opportunities.
Department of Education & Justice: Over-Reliance on Zero Tolerance Policies is Harmful
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech on January 8, 2014, highlighting the deleterious impacts of zero tolerance policies. Duncan stated, “the number of secondary school suspensions and expulsions increased by 40% in the last four decades; there is clearly an over-reliance on exclusionary discipline policies.”
It is estimated that 2 million students were expelled or suspended from secondary schools last year. Duncan supports a positive climate in schools, a goal that restorative justice policies work to effect. “Positive school climates not only minimize necessary suspensions and expulsions, but also reduce disorder in the classroom and bolster learning,” Duncan commented.
It is possible for schools to foster a non-punitive, positive school climate using restorative justice practices, as long as they continue to ensure that actions have consequences. The difference arises the communication and implementation of the consequences.
School Superintendents Association’s School Discipline Survey
Following up with the Department of Education’s Statement, the School Superintendent’s Association surveyed 500 of the country’s superintendents to determine how and why they implement out-of-school suspension policies (OSS). The survey also determined if they superintendents were striving to create more positive school climates to reduce discipline disparities.
42% of surveyed superintendents reported the purpose of OSS is to provide clear consequences and to communicate to parents, students, and teachers that the school administration is taking a situation seriously. Only 12% of respondents believe that the main goals of their disciplinary policies are to change student behavior and discourage future misconduct.
The most crucial finding from this survey, however, relates to disciplinary policy reform. 40% of surveyed superintendents believe that character education, conflict resolution, skill building, and/or social-emotional learning for students would have the greatest effect. The restorative justice methodology helps to instill all of these positive behaviors in students.
Restorative Justice Success: Oakland Unified School District
Oakland, California’s Unified School District has pioneered restorative justice practices in a city of 400,000 which averages triple-digit homicides annually. Large percentages of Oakland’s youth were suspended or expelled in recent years, and as school enrollment declined, homicide rates skyrocketed. Oakland’s dropout rate is 40% overall, and as much as 60% in some schools. The district since implemented restorative justice practices, with support groups providing positive channels for anger. Students came together to first discuss past experiences, including histories of child abuse and absentee parents, before talking about their violations of school code. (A recent set of NPR stories highlighted what restorative justice practices look like in Oakland schools.)
Such support groups enabled some Oakland students to see a tangible link between their past lives and present behavioral patterns. Restorative justice methods draw out and address the source of youth anger and help to channel the anger positively, resulting in fewer future outbursts. Three middle schools implemented positive disciplinary practices, and achieved statistically significant decreases in suspensions and expulsions, according to Resource Development Associates, a consulting company monitoring the results of restorative justice in Oakland schools. Also, California’s youth recidivism – the rate at which youth’s return to prison – is 90% while the recidivism rate of students completing restorative justice programs ranges between 10 and 20 percent.
Restorative Justice Success: West Philadelphia High School
West Philadelphia High School has also implemented restorative justice methods with much success. Listed as one of the most dangerous schools on the states “Persistently Dangerous Schools” list six years in a row, administrators began implementing restorative justice in 2008. Suspensions decreased by 50% and recidivism by almost as much between April and October of the first year of implementation.
West Philadelphia High School’s percentage of violent acts and serious incidents were down 52% in 2007-2008 from their 2006-2007 levels. As the chart below shows, serious behavioral incidents also decreased dramatically.
Principal Saliyah Cruz fully supports the new practices. She commented, “Restorative justice is what you need in an urban environment because you have students who have so many social concerns, so many things that get in the way of learning. Restorative practices have given us a way to help the kids process the things in the front of their minds that make learning secondary to them.”
Implementing Restorative Justice in Pittsburgh Public Schools
If Pittsburgh Public Schools’ administrators were to adopt the restorative justice methodology, schools in the district could save money on attendance, as well as Title I funding. Additionally restorative justice provides educations a unique opportunity to instill positive behavior in their students.
Meaningful interaction between the three primary stakeholders in the conflict, namely the victim, offender, and community of care may help engender a more positive school climate, lead to lower suspension rates, and decrease future offenses by the same student. Administrators can choose to adopt a fully, mostly, or partly restorative discipline system, depending on the degree to which they involve all three stakeholders.
Zero tolerance policies often treat students who violate school code as criminals, rather than addressing the students’ emotional and relational needs. Restorative justice in schools offers an alternative that has witnesses many successes in the past decade. This methodology attacks the problem at its source and may help reduce PPS’s dropout rates if implemented.
AASA & CDF School Discipline Survey. Rep. N.p.: School Superintendents Association, 2014. Print.
Arnold, Eric K. “Oakland Leads Way as Restorative Justice Techniques Enter Education Mainstream.” Center for Public Integrity. N.p., 09 May 2014. Web. 23 June 2014.
Beyond Zero Tolerance. Rep. Pittsburgh: ACLU, 2013. Print.
Findings from Schools Implementing Restorative Practices. Rep. N.p.: International Institute for Restorative Practices, 2009. Print.
McCold, Paul, and Ted Wachtel. In Pursuit of Paradigm: A Theory of Restorative Justice. Rep. N.p.: International Institute for Restorative Practices, 2003. Print.
“Rethinking School Discipline.” U.S. Department of Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 June 2014.
 Beyond Zero Tolerance. Rep. Pittsburgh: ACLU, 2013. Print.
 “Rethinking School Discipline.” U.S. Department of Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 June 2014.
 AASA & CDF School Discipline Survey. Rep. N.p.: School Superintendents Association, 2014. Print.
 Arnold, Eric K. “Oakland Leads Way as Restorative Justice Techniques Enter Education Mainstream.” Center for Public Integrity. N.p., 09 May 2014. Web. 23 June 2014.
 Findings from Schools Implementing Restorative Practices. Rep. N.p.: International Institute for Restorative Practices, 2009. Print.
 McCold, Paul, and Ted Wachtel. In Pursuit of Paradigm: A Theory of Restorative Justice. Rep. N.p.: International Institute for Restorative Practices, 2003. Print.