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Just Restoration vs. "It's Just Policy": What Will it Take to Truly Reform School Discipline?

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This blog entry was written by special guest writer Hilary Lustick. Hilary is a former high school English teacher in Brooklyn and a member of Teachers Unite. She is currently pursuing a PhD in educational leadership at New York University.

It's easier to talk about the problems than to put money on possible solutions. At a recent symposium on the School-to-Prison Pipeline I found a disturbing lack of teacher voice, despite constant blaming of educators and schools for perpetuating the pipeline. As a former teacher in New York City schools, I have written extensively about how lack of resources in our schools--combined with zero tolerance policies--makes it difficult for educators to deal effectively with student conflict, leading to student pushout. I can attest to the scores of colleagues at my schools and other schools across the city who strive to avoid suspension whenever possible, who spend hours of their evenings on the phone with parents and hours of their preparation periods helping students become healthier, happier members of their school community. In fact, many of these teachers have taken these efforts beyond their own classroom and into the policy of the school, seeking to impact their school's approach to discipline with a variety of strategies. Some have gone beyond their school walls to train others, using the skills they've just learned and developed themselves. Our citywide discipline policies may be far behind cities like Oakland. But if anyone's trying in NYC, it's small groups of teachers and administrators, students, and parents.

So when NYC Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott forwent his scheduled keynote address at the symposium to instead take questions from the audience, I chose to highlight what teachers across the city are already doing to develop alternative discipline policies using the framework of restorative justice. Rather than focus on what he could do to solve the problem of high suspension and disproportionate Black and Latino dropout, I wanted to bring to his attention the solutions teachers and administrators were already trying to implement. Would he commit, before this entire symposium, I asked, to funding these solutions and their proliferation across the city?

Restorative justice describes a broad range of practices and strategies to promote community accountability in response to harm and violence in our communities, and when used in schools, restorative practices are a positive alternative to punitive and zero tolerance approaches to the most common discipline issues. These practices are proactive measures that emphasize accountability and allow minor conflicts to act as learning opportunities rather than destructive moments in the lives of young people. (More on restorative practices can be found here.)

As one would imagine, restorative practices take a lot more time and attention than doling out suspensions. Careful training and facilitation are necessary for any restorative strategy (i.e. Fairness Committee, restorative conference, restorative circle) to have any impact. Preparation and follow up are needed to make sure all parties are present and held accountable for consequences and next steps afterwards. If a school in NYC suspends a student, the suspension must be documented online and parents must be called--but that's it. The teachers, administrators, and guidance counselors who take a restorative approach do so against the clock and against responsibilities for which the Department of Education will hold them accountable.

Meanwhile, the DOE also expects schools to lower their suspension rates. They expect a change in data without the means to support this change. As a city, they'd say, we approach curriculum and instructional changes by providing training, support, and feedback to struggling schools. But we also shut down schools we deem incapable of achieving these changes. In other words, if a reform doesn't seem to be working, we give up on the individuals trying to implement it. So I asked the Chancellor, "If high suspension rates are a problem, how much is the city willing to do to support non-punitive alternatives like restorative justice?"

Walcott's reply was that schools themselves need to do this work. He argued that the city cannot force a school to become restorative; instead it's a cultural shift that needs to come from a committed group of school staff, both administrators and teachers. Furthermore, it needs to be supported by the School Leadership Team, a collaborative decision-making body comprising representation from teachers, students, parents, and the principal. To address the extra legwork, Walcott suggested principals restructure their budgets to compensate restorative work. I left the conference wanting to know what teachers would think of this response, so I interviewed school staff from around the city.

Some agreed with Walcott when it came to one thing: restorative justice requires a cultural shift and teacher-buy in. These are not things the city can require. In fact, said one teacher I spoke with, restorative practices themselves do not work if they are compulsory for students or teachers. Students are not penalized for refusing to attend a Fairness Committee; they can simply be referred to the traditional disciplinary route (which often includes suspension).

Others spoke to me about the struggles of teacher buy-in; teachers often see restorative conferences as a soft alternative to "real" consequences. When this is the prevailing attitude, it's hard for restorative practices to become much more than a satellite project used by some portion of the school population but ignored by the rest. This can easily start a vicious cycle where neither students nor adult staff take the conferences--or their follow up steps--seriously. Since the point of restorative justice is to instill relational and community accountability, such a cycle would be a failure for the model itself as well as the attempt to reform discipline policy at large. Surely we wouldn't want to put resources into a program that has no legitimacy, is unsupported by teachers, and is likely to at best remain on the fringes and, at worst, fail.

What, I asked these teachers, would help make restorative justice a more robust and effective program in your school? Time, they answered. More frequent conferences would allow teachers and students to work out their conflicts immediately so that they can get back to work together. Even teacher buy-in could be impacted by a Restorative Justice Coordinator if this individual had the community organizing skills to develop relationships with teachers, students, and parents and learn how to best fit the model to their needs. Teachers are asking for support for what they are already doing and for the time to make it legitimate enough for others in the school to trust and buy into as well.

Schools piloting restorative approaches in NYC are doing so using a wide range of tactics. Morris Campus, in the Bronx, has a unique Student Leadership Council model many high schools can learn from. Young people lead restorative approaches to build community with the support of school staff and a local community organization, Sistas and Brothas United. The four schools on campus had to secure outside funding to support this work, a luxury most schools don't have and a challenge for any school to find. Walcott's contention that the DOE doesn't have the budget to support these schools' efforts seems unfair in light of the multi-million dollar contracts they have with private technology firms. Surely the grants that would support some training in restorative practices, the position of a Restorative Coordinator, and the support of a youth development organization like Sistas and Brothas United would be more modest than that.

But Walcott is right that discipline reform in schools requires a grassroots effort. It is teachers and young people who know how our current system hurts students as well as their academic opportunities. Teachers Unite, as a member of the Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York, is committed to putting parent, student, and teacher voice at the center of decision making about discipline in schools. It's nice that Walcott's willing to listen, but his department needs to put the city's money where his heart claimed to be at that symposium--and where the hearts of DSC-NY teachers, students, and parents are every day.