One of the most pressing concerns in K-12 education is excessive discipline and its role in the school to prison pipeline. The ACLU defines the “school-to-prison pipeline” as a disturbing national trend where children are removed from schools and put into the juvenile and criminal justice system. Many of these kids have learning disabilities or come from a history of poverty, abuse, or neglect and are not given the resources needed in school. The phenomenon impacts students of color at a higher rate, and results in these children being pushed out, isolated, and punished instead of given the tools to succeed.
The “school to prison pipeline” is perpetuated through zero-tolerance discipline policies. There’s significant evidence that certain methods of discipline and punishment, such as suspension, expulsion, and, most detrimental, the use of handcuffs or physical force on a school campus, has a dramatic negative impact on a student's personal and educational outcomes.
Research confirms that removing students from the learning environment has negative implications for school safety, as it is not a sustainable way to manage student behavior. American Psychological Association evaluated school disciplinary policies for 10 years and found that zero-tolerance policies fail to make schools safer. The issue emphasizes the need for new methods of discipline that will cultivate a safe school environment for all students and account for bias in the existing system.
In 2014, the Government Accountability Office found that disciplinary disparities for black students began as early as preschool and persisted regardless of the type of school attended, as reported by the New York Times. The study also found that black students were suspended more than their white peers, no matter the school’s financial status. In fact, these disparities can be most stark in affluent schools - 7.5% of black boys had received an out-of-school suspension at wealthy institutions, while only 1.8% of their white peers had.
This disparity can be addressed by rethinking discipline in K-12. Restorative practices can help educators build healthy, meaningful relationships with students and is one of the most essential ways to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.
What Are Restorative Practices?
Restorative practices are proven to reduce suspensions, expulsions, and disciplinary referrals by focusing on righting a wrong and repairing harm done, according to the Schott Foundation. The goal is to focus on the relationship between teacher, students, and peers, and how the situation in question can be used to move forward with more effective communication and understanding, improving school safety overall. The victim and wrongdoer have the opportunity to share with each other how they were harmed and how they will work to resolve that harm.
Restorative practices work best when its implemented school-wide and becomes integral to the community. There are a few methods proposed by the National Education Association to implement restorative practices in a way that is meaningful and effective. Here are several of the proposed ideas:
Community Conferencing: This practice can help educators and students prevent and respond to conflict by allowing all stakeholders to have a part in the conflict resolution process.
Community Service: Expulsion and suspensions do more harm than good, and community service is a type of disciplinary action that allows the student to contribute a service that will not only benefit the school as a whole, but also provide that individual with a sense of accomplishment and self-improvement.
Peer Juries & Mediation: Several methods can help students have a voice in disciplinary procedures. The first is peer juries which allow trained student jurors to discuss why a rule was broken, who was impacted and what the best way for the student to repair the harm might be. Peer mediation is also a positive youth leadership model that teaches young people they can play a role in reducing conflict and violence. These practices will build trust in the system as a whole, as students will be confident that it is fair and without implicit bias.
Preventive and Post-Conflict Resolution: These programs provide students with problem-solving and self-control skills by walking them through their emotions and teaching them to address the issues that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. This works to address the root cause of the conflict and prevent future incidents from occurring.
Restorative Practices And School Safety's Future
It’s important for educators and administrators to approach their work with empathy and understanding - including when it comes to discipline. It’s important to remember that when a student acts out, it is often due to an underlying issue. According to Robin McNair, the Restorative Practices Coordinator for Prince George’s County in Maryland, these practices are essential for building a safe school community.
“Restorative practices aren’t only for use after a conflict or incident. These practices allow us to proactively build community within a classroom and within a school by nurturing relationships between teachers and students,” she told neaToday. “When students know that you care about them they are more likely to follow the rules and more likely to stay in the classroom and do the work."
These programs have found success in school districts across the United States. For example, Baltimore Public Schools underwent a major reformation of their school disciplinary code, moving to institutionalize restorative justice by dividing behavior into four levels that ensured many low-level offenses never resulted in an out-of-school suspension. In the years following the reform, the school reportedly saw a decrease in out-of-school suspensions, an increase in graduation rates for students of color as well as an increased graduation rate overall.
Leveraging Technology To Improve Communication
The most important part of a restorative practices plan is establishing communication and trust among students and educators. A mass notification system is a way that school administrators can convey information to students, faculty, and staff. The technology can be used to reach students and faculty during a critical incident, but when combined with a mobile panic button app, it can also be used during more serious emergencies, such as a student experiencing a mental health issue, to contact staff trained to help such as a school nurse or guidance counselor. These tools have the capability to help reduce instances where there’s a misunderstanding, and can be further leveraged for conflict reduction on campus.
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