I've always been bothered by traditional discipline. It seems to work for most kids- the ones who never "get in trouble"- but for those kids who do, traditional discipline never seems to change the story for them. They don't seem to learn from their consequences, and often, their behavior escalates while their academic achievement plummets. Traditional discipline is comfortable, and to many of us, it makes sense. Punishments and threats and rewards should motivate kids to do the right thing. But what happens when that doesn't work? Do we suspend a kid for twice the amount of time when he ends up in the office again? Do we truly believe that traditional punishments teach students, or help them to behave? Can students learn from a suspension?
Unfortunately, research shows that the answer is overwhelmingly "no." Zero-tolerance policies have made matters worse; black boys overwhelmingly bear the brunt of harsh discipline; and the school-to-prison pipeline is thriving in large part due to our school discipline practices.
I began my program with an interest in school culture and a background in social/emotional education. Through these lenses, I quickly became fascinated by restorative justice, a practice widely adopted by my school site as a means of increasing equity and supporting the social, emotional, and academic needs of all students as valuable members of our school community. I've always had a casual interest in restorative practices, but I didn't "get it" until I had the chance to sit in on a family restorative conference.
"A" got into a physical altercation with "B" in the commons. In my previous school, A would've meet with our vice principal and he would've been given a 3-5 day suspension. A would have a re-entry meeting in which he would promise not to do it again, and he'd return to class, whereupon all of his classmates would ask him what happened with the fierce frenzy of middle school drama.
Here, A, B, their parents, and their teachers met before school in a circle to talk about what happened, how it made them feel, who was affected, and what needs to happen to make things right. Each participant had an opportunity to share their thoughts while all other participants listened. At the end, the group, led by the two students, brainstormed and agreed upon a series of steps to "make things right" and repair the harm done to the community. A would complete some community service, and B and A would facilitate a grade-wide community circle on ways to peacefully deal with conflict.
During the circle, I paid close attention to A and B's parents. B's father stressed his concern for A and his hope that A could get what he needed in order to manage his anger in more productive, less harmful ways. He shared his understanding of the teenage male brain, and explained to A that a surge of testosterone and the development of the rational frontal cortex makes it difficult for adolescents to stop and think before they act. A's mother cried as she described her fear for A's future if this behavior continued, and expressed her sadness and disappointment in A's behavior as a reflection of her parenting. The parents expressed their appreciation for the circle, were satisfied in the resolution.
There was no anger. There was no blame. Everyone left the circle with a sense of satisfaction and fairness. I'm not sure I'm ready to say that restorative justice is the end-all, be-all of school discipline, but I'm already seeing much potential for helping our students- and parents- peacefully work through problems as a community in a way that is fair to all.