clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

No Tolerance for Zero-Tolerance: Developing Restorative Alternatives

Usually a multi-piece series of articles should be published close together, but I have definitely made people wait — in anticipation, I’m sure — for the next part of my series about what I stand for as an educator. I apologize for the five-week delay, and though I know excuses are overrated, I have at least been working on some pretty interesting things.

A small collective of organizers kicked off the New Teacher Underground series that I wrote about a few months back when the idea was still a newborn. Also, as Hilary Lustick wrote last week on GothamSchools, the Grassroots Education Movement held an initial meeting to plan the creation of a campaign against high-stakes testing, which we are hoping to launch in the fall. We were also preparing for the Save Our Schools March on Washington and national conference, which I attended last weekend. And I have been attending a weekly reading group sponsored by Teachers Unite about restorative justice, a theory of community-building that encourages all communities to take a restorative, rather than punitive, approach to how we respond to harm. Within a school setting, restorative justice frameworks start by helping students and teachers develop a stronger sense of community so that discipline concerns become less common to begin with, but it also provide transformative alternatives to traditional punishments like suspension and detention that do little to help students think through how their actions affect the larger community.

The restorative justice work is something I am particularly excited about, in part because I know it is something I can bring directly into my school. In fact, the Bushwick Campus where I teach has begun a building-wide, teacher-initiated push to integrate more restorative discipline practices into each of the four school environments in the building. The hope is that we can build stronger school cultures, take a more preventive approach to discipline, and reduce the use of suspensions, which cause students to feel isolated from school and have been demonstrated to exacerbate behavioral issues, not improve them. It will be a lot of work to start building these practices, and certainly suspensions cost less in money and effort. But I have come to believe that developing restorative approaches to community-building and disciplinary policies in our schools is one of the only ways we can create school environments that are nurturing places in which to grow and learn.

In fact, the use of restorative justice practices in schools is a prime example of the third “real reform” that I initially outlined: Department of Education policies that promote a socially just approach to schooling, education, and discipline.

As I have learned through my reading group and in a workshop at the Free Minds Free People conference a few weeks ago, New York City’s schools are increasingly oriented toward punishment, often involving the criminal justice system. According to the NYCLU, the budget for police and security equipment has increased by 65 percent since the beginning of mayoral control almost 10 years ago. In the 2008-2009 school year there were 5,055 school safety agents in New York City’s schools, compared to 3,152 guidance counselors. The use of suspensions has also increased nearly 100 percent since 2000-2001, in great part due to the inclusion of zero-tolerance policies in the DOE’s discipline code.

So what does all of this mean to one school? In my school building, where students step through metal detectors each morning, they often say that school feels like a prison. Students face harassment from school safety agents who are employees of the NYPD and are trained by police officers, not by educators. Because of zero-tolerance policies, an excellent student of mine who gets up at 4 a.m. to work at his father’s deli and had a box cutter from that job in his pocket at school was suspended for three days, even though his father vouched for him and every teacher and our principal knew it was an accident. The suspension caused the student to fall behind in his classes, and if he had been a struggling student or was less committed to school he might have decided to throw in the towel. That happens a lot.

Socially just approaches to discipline policies would take students’ needs, emotional states, and opinions into consideration. When we suspend or expel students, what we are communicating to them is that we don’t care about them enough to take the time to sit down and work problems out or to listen to what they have to say. We are saying that we don’t care about whatever issues they are facing that caused them to behave the way they did. And we are also communicating to them that they do not have a responsibility to repair whatever harm their actions caused. Restorative justice in no way advocates for “leniency” when it comes to discipline, but instead includes peers and teachers in the process of holding students accountable for repairing harm done to the community. The process also allows the student the opportunity to reflect on the way their actions affect the wider school community, the importance of which is rarely given any weight in a traditional punitive discipline model.

Some version of this process is what often happens in affluent schools when students get in trouble, and it should be no different in our inner-city schools. In fact, one could argue that it is even more essential in low-income communities where dropout rates are high and disengagement from school is common. I had a student this year who, within a few months of the beginning of ninth grade, was highly disengaged and repeatedly disruptive in all of his classes. Of course teachers spoke to him about his behavior and tried to work with him, but never was he given the opportunity to reflect in a safe space with teachers and peers about the ways that his actions influence the classroom and the wider school-community. By his own account he has had a disrupted upbringing and is living in foster care, and by the end of the year he had come to see school as a hostile place much like his home environment.

We should be striving to transform schools into places where students can develop the intrinsic ability to think about how their own decisions have an effect upon others, and to create safe learning environments where students choose to make positive contributions to the learning environments rather than just being scared into compliance. While schools cannot dream of solving all of society’s problems, our current discipline practices are in fact contributing to high drop-out rates and the disturbing phenomenon in communities of color often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. Teachers Unite is involved with the Dignity in Schools campaign that is working to build restorative practices and has helped to create a demand for knowledge about how to implement restorative approaches. While zero-tolerance policies remain in place in New York City, the DOE has also been offering professional development to teachers about restorative alternatives. This is great news, and though instituting restorative frameworks within our schools is not easy work, it seems so critical at this point. I am hopeful that the movement will continue to build and we can create the kind of schools we know are possible.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing the information families and educators need, but this kind of work isn't possible without your help.