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Restoring Humanity are short(ish) segments on understanding a key idea of progressive education. This time, we're tackling discipline! What are the roots of our discipline system, what issues exist, and how can we solve them?
Hosted by Human Restoration Project
Chris McNutt: Hello, and welcome to the latest episode of Restoring Humanity from the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris. Thanks for joining me today. Restoring Humanity is a sub-series of our podcast where we talk about a specific progressive idea. It's history, research, and implementation into a school. Before we get started, a special thank you to Jenny Lucas and Annette Laughlin for being patrons. Our Patreon supporters keep this podcast, as well as all of the great materials and research on our website, alive. You can find out more about us and find a wealth of information on our website at humanrestorationproject.org. It is necessary to use the rod. The first application is sometimes looked upon by the pupil only as a test. He may accept it graciously and still persist in the undesired act. It may take several applications firmly to associate the act with an unpleasant consequence. But in time, the pupil will come to understand the teacher must be obeyed. These are instructions from William Bagley's Classroom Management, a widely used teacher training manual from 1907. Today, we're talking about discipline and what a profound difference we can make by incorporating restorative justice practice over traditional zero tolerance policies. First, we should define what these two things are. A zero tolerance policy is a disciplinary measure where one typically gives a very harsh penalty automatically to someone who breaks a certain rule. For example, a student handbook says that if one steals something, they're automatically suspended for seven days. Or if someone's late to class 10 days in a row, they have an afterschool detention. Restorative justice, which we'll define a lot more later, is, simply stated, a way to rehabilitate those causing problems, rather than simply imposing a sentence. For example, if someone is stealing something, figuring out why they're stealing something and what remedial action is justified. Or if someone's late to class, figuring out why they're late to class and why that constantly is going on. Both of these terms are also utilized in the criminal justice system and we'll note how they connect throughout. It should be obvious to anyone that children will act out. Since the beginning of schooling, children have simply goofed off to committed felonies. The way that we address these issues has changed over time, albeit not as much as you might think. When we trace back early disciplinary policy to the 1800s, it is probably what most people think of, using a paddle, rod, or some device to hurt pupils and get them to obey, and that's quite accurate. This practice, corporal punishment, is mirrored with public vloggings or really executions to discourage behavior from the perpetrator, as well as those who dare to do that action. Students got in trouble in similar ways to today. Usually profanity, disrespecting a teacher, or some kind of physical aggression. Corporal punishment was widely used, however many educators did reject it. Horace Mann, one of the original proponents for common schools, was shocked at Prussia's system of handling its students. He remarked on how little the rod was used in controlling students and kids just listened because the content was interesting, and he was really surprised by it and thought, well, let's make schools actually more engaging so that these discipline measures don't have to happen. That being said, depending on where you teach, you might be surprised to know that even 150 years later, corporal punishment is still heavily utilized. Although it's definitely less widespread, the Education Week Research Center found 109,000 students were victim to paddling, swatting, or some form of physical punishment in the 2013-2014 school year. This form of punishment was two times more likely for African Americans, and we'll talk about that more in a second. In terms of the shift of punishment in the 1960s, out-of-school suspensions became the new resolve to dealing with misacting kids. After all, there's no easier way to solve a disciplinary problem than out of sight out of mind. Soon after, the education community became concerned that when we send all of these children home, that would just cause more problems at home and students still wouldn't be learning anything. So, in 1976, DM O'Brien was one of the first to outline a new system of in-school suspensions. He stated that the goal of the program was for students to accept the consequences of their actions and to think about what they were doing and why it was wrong. Despite research from then and now showcasing that suspensions, whether they're inside or outside of school, actually lead to more disciplinary problems, the most common reprimand being used even today is a suspension. And to add, for the most extreme problems, regardless of what time period we're looking at, there is always expulsion as an option. No matter what way we look at this, there's no way to talk about discipline without talking explicitly about race. From the limited data supplied from segregated schools, it seems as if discipline rates were roughly the same across black and white schools. However, after Brown v Board of Education in 1954, it quickly became clear that students of color were much more likely to receive punishment as written about extensively by author and professor bell hooks. After desegregation, black students became targeted by white teachers who judged, labeled and demeaned them. Shockingly, students are actually more segregated now than they were 40 years ago. As many are aware, when George Wallace renounced Brown v Board of Education, he stated, quote, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever. Chillingly, these words are the reality of school districts. Practices of redlining, white flight, economic manipulation, hiring practices, systemic criminal justice issues, and more have placed many burdens on African Americans. And it's not uncommon for inner city schools to be almost entirely children of color. And these students, those with some of the hardest economic backgrounds, face immense pressure at school and at home. In an effort to, and I say this in quotes, educate inner city students, mostly for-profit charter schools have promised communities to put children into colleges. Sadly, these institutions only reinforce low levels of regurgitated information and reinforce control over all else. Seeing students of color as lowly as many white teachers did in the 1960s, charter schools suspend black students at four times the rate of white students. In one Stanford study, it was revealed that teachers tend to judge black students in fractions more severely, regardless of what school they're at. And for very poor districts, which again remain heavily racially segregated, discipline is just one issue of systemic oppression, economic collapse, poor health, and high crime. In Jonathan Kozol's eye-opening accounts of savage inequalities, he highlights the disparate nature of low-income schools, where gang violence is real and even basic school furnishings are absent. And these schools, discipline is not even as focused on as the high dropout rate. Moving into the ways of trying to fix these problems today, whether it be an inner city school or suburban school or any kind of school, much of fixing school discipline is mirrored with that of law enforcement. In the 1980s, coming out of the racially charged war on drugs movement, the idea of zero tolerance policies began to be utilized. In a move that would institutionalize large portions of mostly minority communities, zero tolerance policies put extreme punishment on many offenses, notably laws surrounding marijuana, which was targeted in cities. For schools, zero tolerance took aim at drug possession, gang activity, and possession of weapons. However, in the late 1980s and through today, this has been expanded to tobacco use, school disruption, and various less serious behaviors. In 2001, after zero tolerance was adopted in Chicago public schools, out of school suspensions rose 51%, with primarily African American and Hispanic students being targeted. When surveyed, 69% of these students did not believe that suspensions would do much, and 55% of them were angry at the person that suspended them. Notably, No Child Left Behind developed zero tolerance further. The law stated that states must, quote, adopt a zero tolerance policy that empowers teachers to remove violent or persistently disruptive students from the classroom. Although I'm sure we're all on the same page that guns and drugs should not be in our classrooms, the varying degrees of what constitutes a disruptive student and how far we should go is worrisome. Paired with the push of zero tolerance policies is also the growing concern of a school to prison pipeline, which again heavily mirrors policies that target the historically oppressed. Not only have punishments been readily given, but police are now actively involved. According to the ACLU, 31% of African American students are arrested from something that happened at school, whereas only 16% of African Americans make up the public school system. That's three times the rate of white students. Troublingly, students who are suspended or expelled are three times more likely to be involved with the juvenile justice system within the following year. So not only are these policies unjust, they're just not working. In 1998, the National Center for Education Statistics surveyed which schools had adopted zero tolerance policies and how many students were suspended or expelled. And in 2003, they gave the same survey and they found that the numbers had not changed to a measurable degree. In other words, when these schools adopted zero tolerance policies roughly five years earlier, they found that it had absolutely no determined effect on students being sentenced. So perhaps the system isn't working. In the same way that we have massive prisoner recidivism rates, maybe our school systems are just remaining ignorant of major systemic problems. All in all, discipline policy has doubled down the United States. Despite a decrease in physical violence toward children, our tactics have arguably become more extreme. Zero tolerance is still alive and going strong in 2018, and it's a common school policy to isolate and remove students from the classroom who break a code from the handbook, reach a certain number of strikes, or who have some instance of acting out. In response to the inhumane idea of zero tolerance, reformers of the late 20th century developed a framework for restorative justice. Initially focused on removing the blanket sentencing of criminals, this policy too was brought into the fold of education. In summary, restorative justice focuses on four key elements. One, attempting to remedy the problem by communicating with the perceived aggressor and empowering the victim to share their perspective. Two, the aggressor is made aware of the issue that they've caused in an explicit and open dialogue and is encouraged to take ownership of that problem. Three, with a focus on reconciliation, the victim isn't forced to forgive anyone, but the aggressor does have the opportunity to make amends. And four, the victim is constantly involved in the process as much as they'd like to be. And I'm sure that for most of us, this is not common practice in our building. Usually if a problem ever occurred in my classroom, it would look something like, okay, there's a student causing a problem, I send them to the office, the office gives them a warning or a suspension or something worse, and then I don't really think about it anymore. And in this case, ignorance is bliss. It doesn't take a research study, although there are many, to demonstrate that students rarely stop acting inappropriately when sent to the office. Although fights, theft, and other crimes are dangerous and deserve to be taken seriously, the act of suspending, or worse, arresting, a child tends to lead to more problems than it creates. Restorative justice is often misinterpreted. It is not a substitute for punishment, but a different way of analyzing a situation. It's all about mindset. Obviously, major offenses still warrant major action. The goal of restorative justice at its heart is to reallocate the aggressor from feeling resentment, which tends to stem from isolation and poor emotional well-being to that of reflection and acceptance of the actions that they took. The truth is, if we isolate a student when they do something wrong, we tend to just make them more socially and emotionally resentful. It doesn't solve any of their problems, it actually makes things much worse. Sure, in the short term we've solved the problem for the victim, to an extent we removed it, but all children are ours in the education system, even those who do things wrong. They deserve help just as much as the rest of us. Therefore, the interpretation that restorative justice is less serious than zero tolerance is misguided. In fact, we spend a lot more time on every single issue when we try to remedy a problem. At its core, the practice of restorative justice is based in empathy. By understanding the aggressor, as well as the victim, we can encourage responsible actions in the future. We want to make the aggressor a caring individual whose issues are alleviated, while simultaneously ensuring that the victim is empowered and the problems are rectified. So to tie this all together and put it into perspective, consider this scenario. A student who we'll call Rob stole another student named Aya's phone. Aya tells you, as a teacher, that she knows Rob has it in her backpack. You go talk to Rob, and he says he doesn't have it. So you go tell administration, they confiscate his stuff, and they find the phone. In a traditional education system, which most of us teach in, Rob would probably be instantly suspended or at least isolated and yelled at by a disciplinarian. He would be lectured for doing something wrong, Aya would get her phone back, and depending on the school and what Rob has done before, he could possibly be arrested. The difference in a restorative mindset would be that first, Rob would be invited to the office to explain what's going on. The administration would not scold them, lecture them, threaten. Instead, they would explain how his actions have affected Aya. After a considerable amount of time trying to open communication, and it will take a lot given the level of distrust of students and many of their superiors, the administration will find out why Rob has Aya's phone. Likely, at least in my anecdotal evidence of how students take each other's phones, Rob probably wants attention from other people or maybe even Aya. However, there could be a situation, maybe he needs to make money, or maybe there's gang activity. Rob might tell the truth, he might lie, he might not actually admit to doing anything wrong at all. Whatever this might be, the administration would then isolate Rob and talk to Aya. Again, administration would be calm, welcoming, and friendly to Aya, something that I find many administrators don't do even to the student who's the victim, the student that's innocent. They feel like they're the ones causing the problem because administration is so stressed out and angry about what's going on. So instead, they'll talk to Aya in a friendly way, and she'll present her perspective on the problem. Depending on what Rob said in the earlier meeting, the administrator might ask Aya what her take is on the situation, maybe even inviting her to make reprimands for Rob. After this, Rob would again sit down with the administrator, share Aya's feelings if she said she was okay with it, and encourage Rob to apologize and make amends. Importantly, and this is a really important step, Rob and Aya would be scheduled to meet again for multiple follow-ups to further explore the situation and ensure that Rob makes progress and Aya is satisfied. So it goes without being said that this is a really complex process. It's elaborative, it's humane, and it's a lot more difficult to implement than zero tolerance. The explanation alone is pretty hard for me to read and say, but we do owe it to our children. And of course, there's going to be a lot of ambiguity. Aya might have lied about the whole situation. What if Aya doesn't say anything? What if Rob doesn't say anything? Every scenario has to be taken on its own accord and explored for the best possible outcome. And sometimes suspensions, expulsions, and police involvement do occur when we use restorative justice. However, we have to recognize that by changing our mindset, we're attempting to help students rather than get rid of them. A lot of this is minor thinking and acting changes. Instead of labeling someone as a troublemaker, we see their actions as troublemaking. Instead of seeing the problem quickly resolved for the victim, we take time to hear their side of the story. Instead of telling the aggressor they're the problem, they have the chance to accept responsibility for themselves. We know that relationships are the cornerstone to education, so our discipline policy should reflect that. Every facet of this practice is rooted in learning more about the person, reflecting, and caring about their future. Counter to this are the don't do that practices. They're rarely effective. I'm thinking about worksheets or documentaries that attempt to discourage bullying, sexual activity, gun violence, whatever. And while these have probably the best intentions in mind, they rarely lead to any form of fundamental change. A student has to know why what they're doing is wrong through empathetic practice. For example, Restorative Justice might invite students to share their experiences in a safe, transparent community that's not only preached but practiced. We would encourage questions, no matter how outrageous they might be to a traditional mindset to be asked. We would not make blatant statements. For example, don't bully people, that's bad. Instead, we would deep dive into personal experiences and recognizing the negative consequences of these actions. Both staff and students must become experts on this mindset through their time at school, through in-depth, constant reinforcement. And here's how we'll take it further. The mindset adoption is by far the largest step, but there are things we can do in schools to make an even bigger difference. Each of these is adopted from extensive resources on Restorative Justice, which you can find in our show notes. First is a peacemaking circle. This is where a trained facilitator leads a group of students, staff, family, and community members to talk about important issues. Sometimes this is in response to a major problem at the school that occurred, or maybe they just want to beat it to the punch and talk about critical issues in general. The goal of these circles is to develop empathy, respect, and understanding. Everyone is taught to actively listen, communicate positively, understand why these issues occur rather than how, and ensure that confidentiality exists. No questions are off the table, and everyone's meant to be respected. Sometimes these circles use role-playing to help develop a new perspective about a situation. The second technique could be utilizing students as mediators. Instead of an administrator taking the lead on all discipline, minor infractions could be mediated by a student representative. Students are typically more prone to acknowledge what they've done to a peer, and a trained mediator helps students reconcile their actions. I can't empathize enough how powerful it is to have a student mediating a disciplinary scenario. The third technique could be a peer jury. This is similar to having a student mediator, but it's a group of students. And this wouldn't just be the top performers at your school or those that are voted into a position. It's just a random selection or a selection of those deemed appropriate to handle the situation. It's essentially a trial, similar to how an academic misconduct trial happens at universities. Remedial behavior and decisions are determined primarily by students, which again helps reinforce the idea that it's a community rather than just a harsh disciplinary action from those at the top. Beyond all this, essentially training in restorative justice is paramount. It's easy to talk about these problems and to say that these things might occur, but each situation requires a lot of critical thinking, and it can be difficult to interpret to every single educator. A staff needs to all be on the same page, and there's a variety of helpful links and resources that can be found in the attached reflective development resource. And sadly, if you're in a location that isn't willing to see students in this way, the good news is you can embody some hope in your classroom by diving into this mindset yourself. Surrounding all of this is a subject that I was talking about before, but not a lot of people want to talk about, which is racism, sexism, and other oppressive measures that relate to this whole discipline issue. Aside from the staggeringly high rates of discipline and incarceration facing minority populations, LGBTQ plus teens face five times the attempted suicide rate of heterosexual students. 90% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt, with 92% attempting before they were 25, and each time physical or verbal abuse occurs, the likelihood of self-harm amongst these teens increases 2.5 times. The cultural discourse surrounding what can easily be defined as a historic, and at many times still functioning, society of white supremacy infiltrates our school systems. As long as these notions exist, restorative justice won't have much of an impact. The fact remains that many administrators and staff conform to misguided thoughts and negatively impact kids. Whether it's explicitly known to them or not, I can think of many cases where coworkers have judged students based off what they look like, how they act, or where they're from. And of course, I can easily state that there has been some push on my own mindset, and likely I will continually, inadvertently do so, and it's important that we all check ourselves. That being said, it doesn't mean that we should just be complacent to the whole system. Setting up for our students in this regard is probably one of, if not the largest things we can do to fix a pervasive problem in schools. I said this last time when talking about how going gradeless could get you fired or reprimanded, but tackling injustices in society is a whole different world. Facing racist, sexist, and other structures that persevere amongst policy, staff, or administration is as horrifying as it is daunting. Taking even minor actions has a profound effect, however. For example, when a teacher says something judgingly about a student, try to have them empathize, maybe saying something like, well, have you thought about this? Maybe take it a step further and start doing home visits with students. Be the beacon that shines a light on students' lives and invite your coworkers to participate. Students are in the most targeted position they possibly could be at a school. They need guardians who help them. It is my hope that restorative justice opens a door for challenging oppressive notions of our society. Beyond that, we move into legal territory, which would branch way beyond the scope of this podcast, but it would involve, for example, contacting the ACLU or some kind of activist association to help rectify major systemic problems that might be occurring. Lastly, I don't want to imply that changing discipline alone will eliminate all systemic problems, hence the word systemic, and many of our students that act out have problems that go well beyond the ability to remedy without substantial resources. Things such as poverty, abuse, and fear are a reality for far too many kids. Our goal is to enact as much hope as possible at school, to help them to cope, as well as doing as much as we can to connect them with the resources that they need. Schools should be advocates for students in and out of the classroom. We are there to serve, and we will do everything possible to meet the needs of our children. Hope you enjoyed this podcast. We want to connect with you and hear your thoughts. Follow us on Twitter, YouTube, Medium, and other social media, and be sure to check us out on our website at humanrestorationproject.org. If you want to support us in our endeavor of starting a movement towards progressive ed through high-quality resources, consider supporting us on Patreon. Thanks again!