breaking news

Man shot, killed while sitting on porch of Chamblee apartment

Get Schooled

Your source to discuss and learn about education in Georgia and the nation and share opinions and news with Maureen Downey

School discipline shifts to fewer suspensions and more conversations. But does it work?

Alarm over soaring suspension and expulsion rates has led many schools to embrace a holistic alternative known as restorative justice, which relies on peer mediation to help wrongdoers understand how their actions affected others and find ways to make amends.

Psychology Today had a recent article on restorative justice that explained it this way:

School restorative practices vary widely, but most such practices bring together those who were harmed and those who did the harm (along with adults representing the interests of the school community) for the purpose of mutual understanding, self-responsibility, community accountability, repairing of harm (including relationships) and reintgration of the person causing the harm back into the school community.

I attended a conference on school discipline a few years ago where presenters spoke about the conditions necessary for successful restorative justice programs. They stressed schoolwide buy-in of the approach and comprehensive training. They also said the motivation can't only be lowering suspension rates; there has to be a commitment to empowering students to mediate and resolve conflicts.

I have since talked to parents and teachers discouraged about how restorative justice was unfolding in their schools. Teachers contended schools adopted restorative justice to reduce escalating suspension rates by forcing teachers to deal with offenders in the classroom rather than sending them to the office. Parents complained about the time lost to "classroom circles" where students share how the wrongdoing impacted them and talk through a resolution.

I thought about those complaints when I read this week's story in the Fresno Bee about a California high school in which at least 70 of the 85 teachers signed a petition demanding stricter and more consistent discipline. The Fresno Bee pointed out the petition was circulating at McLane High School at the same time school district officials were at a state conference touting how well restorative justice was impacting the school.

The Fresno Bee reports: (If you are interested in this issue, read the Fresno Bee story. It is excellent.)

Starting in 2014, schools in the McLane High region became the first in the district to implement restorative practices: strategies that aim to fix issues at the heart of student misbehavior, instead of merely kicking students out of classrooms. While suspensions and expulsions at Fresno Unified have dramatically decreased since then, some teachers say the pressure to curb disciplinary action has led to zero consequences for students, and out-of-control classrooms.

McLane High teacher Jessica Ketchum says the programs have backfired. Just last week, when she called for a school resource officer for help with an alleged theft, she says she heard one student tell another: “Don’t worry, they won’t do anything.” Ketchum says she called for help four times within an hour for the students to be removed from her class, but ultimately, they were not disciplined. “Students have little to lose, and it would appear that they have become skilled at making the system work for them,” she said. “I rarely call for help, as do many of my colleagues, because nothing is done, and the student returns more angry with us or even louder.”

Researchers at the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center wanted to know how restorative justice was working and undertook a comprehensive review of the literature, interviewed experts in the field and surveyed  educators using restorative justice. In a report released earlier this year, they concluded:

In general, the research evidence to support restorative justice in schools is still in a nascent state. Despite the exponential growth of RJ in U.S. schools, and some evidence of its effectiveness abroad, the evidence to date is limited and the research that has been published lacks the internal validity necessary to exclusively attribute outcomes to RJ. However, the preliminary evidence does suggest that RJ may have positive effects across several outcomes related to discipline, attendance and graduation, climate and culture, and various academic outcomes.

In the literature reviewed for this report, RJ is generally portrayed as a promising approach to address climate, culture, and safety issues in school. The community of support for its implementation has grown exponentially over the past several years, but more research is needed. There are several rigorous trials underway that will perhaps provide the evidence necessary to make stronger claims about the impact of RJ, and the field will benefit greatly as those results become available over the next several years.

Many Georgia school systems are introducing restorative justice, including Atlanta Public Schools, which is training its new  Safety and Security Department in social emotional learning, positive behavior supports and restorative justice.

Writing on this blog in March, DeKalb Superintendent Steve Green said he hoped restorative justice would lower the high suspension rates at several of his district's schools. An AJC analysis found that DeKalb County had five of the top 10 schools in metro Atlanta with the most suspensions.

Restorative approaches offer better alternatives than punitive disciplinary systems and procedures. In a punitive system, discipline really doesn’t link wrongdoers and those they harm. It fails to make any real connections between punishment and the actual offense. Authorities ask: What rule’s been broken? Who’s to blame? What’s the punishment?

The restorative approach asks questions that open a path to progress: What happened? Who’s been affected? How? How do we put things right? How do we move forward?

Increasingly, we see schools with restorative approaches more effective at shaping positive classroom cultures. They establish lasting changes in relationships and better connections among members of a school community. Victims speak, and wrongdoers face them and face accountability. The entire climate of care improves. In DeKalb, our restorative system of discipline will focus on the whole child, not just the bad a child does.

What has been your experience with restorative justice in your schools?


Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.