Zero tolerance was once seen as the only way to address student misconduct, particularly in high-poverty schools. But years of harsh, no-excuses discipline have resulted in high rates of suspensions and expulsions that affect minorities in disproportionate ways and predict a cascade of poor outcomes, from dropping out to jail time.
“Educators are hungry for alternatives to office referrals when it comes to student misbehavior,” says social work professor Marilyn Armour. She and her team at the Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue are working with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to introduce restorative discipline to educators across the state.
A preventive approach that emphasizes talking it out and resolving disputes while keeping students in school, restorative discipline has already created positive change in Texas and gained fans like Mandy Matthews, assistant principal at Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin.
In 2011, a scathing report from the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center summarized the results of years of zero-tolerance discipline in Texas schools: 60 percent of middle and high school students had been expelled or suspended at least once, African-American and Latino students were disciplined at higher rates than their white classmates, and students suspended or expelled were more likely to repeat a grade, drop out, or end up in the criminal justice system, feeding what some call the school-to-prison pipeline.
The report found that 97 percent of disciplinary actions were made at the discretion of school officials for violations of conduct rules — anything from playing with a toy gun to wearing pants too low at the hips.
What if teachers were given tools other than office referrals to deal with these behaviors? Oddly enough, teachers learn little about this while getting their certification. “You learn about your content area, how to write a lesson plan and so on, but not much about building relationships with students, about the social work aspect of working with young people,” Matthews says.
In addition, Armour points out, most teachers are white and female, and they get their first jobs in schools where students are mostly minorities: “The cultural diversity gap between teachers and students means that the potential for misunderstandings and assumptions about each other is very high.”
In 2012, San Antonio’s Ed White Middle School was issued an “Improvement Required” from TEA. Principal Philip Carney knew that at the core, the problem was discipline: the school had one of the highest suspension rates in its district and teachers spent so much time dealing with disciplinary issues that they sacrificed teaching actual content. That year, Armour’s team began training school staff and by 2014, after two years of gradually replacing zero-tolerance with restorative discipline, suspensions were down 75 percent, and the school received four stars of distinction for its standardized test scores.
Restorative discipline changed the school climate so much that students devised a form to request a restorative discipline circle to deal with difficult situations before conflict broke out. A new expression entered the school’s vocabulary:
As a fifth grader told another, “I could fight you, but I’m gonna circle it.”
“CIRCLE IT” – HOW IT WORKS
Picture this: Students and their teacher come together in a circle with a talking piece — any object, and only the person who holds it can talk — to discuss how things are going for 15 minutes at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the week. These check-in, check-up, and check-out circles, Matthews says, give teachers “a framework to build relationships with students so that office referrals are not the default option when a rule is broken.” Weekly circles also teach students how to deal with emotions and disagreement in non-violent ways.
When there is a conflict — a fight, cyberbullying, a student talking back to a teacher — everyone involved is called into the already familiar framework of a circle with a facilitator to have a conversation structured around three questions: What happened? Who has been affected? What are we going to do to make things right? The solution and consequences agreed upon are written in a binding document that all circle participants sign and promise to uphold.
Restorative discipline “is not a short-term program or a silver-bullet solution,” Armour says outright. “It’s a whole school approach, a set of principles and practices to create a different school climate, which pays dividends when times get tough.”
UPSIDES AND DOWNSIDES
A common misconception about restorative discipline is that rule breakers are simply asked to share their feelings in a circle without being held accountable for their actions. But for students, Matthews says, it is much harder to have a face-to-face conversation with somebody they hurt than “staying at home suspended watching Netflix and not ever having to talk about what happened.” Armour adds that restorative discipline brings “meaningful accountability:” instead of a one-size-fits-all consequence such as school suspensions, circle participants come up with a consequence that fits the specific situation and needs of everyone affected.
Another argument is that restorative discipline is too time consuming. But as the example of Ed White Middle School shows, Armour says, educators are already spending much time dealing with disciplinary issues: “They can spend that time on the front end with prevention, or they will spend it anyway on the back end, with reactivity. Restorative discipline emphasizes prevention, and it ultimately saves time.”
Yet another argument is that it’s too involved. Matthews says yes: “Many teachers were uncomfortable with facilitating hard conversations. They would say, ‘I’m not a counselor, why do I have to do this?’ And that’s where you see the difference between people who like to teach content, and people who like to teach kids and are truly invested in the lives of young people.” Armour adds that restorative discipline is a whole school approach focused on relationship building: “Teachers for whom this is not a good fit may move to other schools.”
After the success at Ed White Middle School, Armour and her team were flooded with training requests; when they presented at conferences, educators waited in line. In 2016 they started to bring restorative discipline trainings to TEA regional service centers, which funnel continuing education for teachers and administrators across the state. The trainings are practical and hands-on. There is a two-day training for school administrators, where they can understand the nitty-gritty of restorative discipline by experiencing circles with peers, and can evaluate whether or not it is a good fit for their schools. For those who think it is, there is a five-day training for coordinators — the educators or community-based staff members who will guide implementation and help tailor restorative discipline in each school. So far, approximately 1,160 administrators and 450 coordinators have gone through the trainings.
“Nobody else is doing what we are doing here,” Armour says. “Cities like San Francisco, Denver, and Boston have had school-board resolutions to implement restorative discipline, but here we are scaling it statewide. In the process, we are learning a lot about what happens with implementation, and we are bringing this knowledge back into the trainings”
Armour thinks that the failure of zero tolerance policies has opened opportunities for new approaches, and is excited about showing what restorative discipline can do in Texas, which has 10 percent of the nation’s student population: “We have a phenomenal opportunity to influence a major social institution that is key for the public health of our country.”
By Andrea Campetella