When Suspensions Are Down, But Restorative Discipline Is Not Up

The racism, once long latent in “zero tolerance” school discipline policies, is now manifest to many education stake holders, especially in urban school districts with majority non-white students. White educators everywhere are waking up to the reality that America’s addiction to incarceration is directly tied to school discipline policies that disproportionately push students of color out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system. In effort to reverse what is called the “school-to-prison pipeline,” many race conscious administrators have called for dramatic reductions in the number of out-of-school suspensions across all student racial demographics.

The idea is simple; keeping students in school will lead to keeping adults out of prison. And to be sure, lowering suspension rates is a moral good. When a student remains in the classroom instead of in the hall, the principal’s office, or the police cruiser, it is a small win for everyone. But the question becomes, “What is the opposite of zero tolerance?” When punitive discipline policies are abandoned, are they replaced with alternative forms of discipline, or is the school simply left with less discipline?

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Experience is now proving that lowering suspension rates without implementing restorative discipline policies that help students understand and take control of their own behavior, only creates a toxic learning environment where neither students nor teachers feel safe. Teachers in these situations are reporting a sharp increase of student-on-teacher violence at virtually every grade level. Zero tolerance policies are not pro teacher, but teachers who express concern for their own safety at school must be heard. The Oklahoma Education Association is an organization, comprised mostly of teacher members, that is “committed to the success of every student” in Oklahoma. The National Education Association, of which the OEA is a state affiliate, categorically rejects “zero tolerance” discipline policies. However, promoting a safe working environment for teachers is paramount for America’s premier teachers’ union. When suspensions are lowered without implementing a model of restorative discipline, the school becomes a more volatile environment, and the teachers’ union is put in the unfortunate place of appearing to choose the teacher over the student.

Lowering suspension rates first and only is putting the cart before the horse. The opposite of zero tolerance is overwhelming tolerance, and tolerance is the active pursuit of understanding and appreciating difficult barriers between people. The key is for social justice minded teachers and administrators to truly understand that tolerance is not the same as leniency. In order to reduce suspension rates and guarantee the continuing safety of everyone in the building, there must a cultural shift in discipline philosophy. And it is not just the responsibility of administrators. All stakeholders; teachers, paraprofessionals, and even families, must rethink the entire school community’s approach to discipline.

Experience is now proving that lowering suspension rates without implementing restorative discipline policies that help students understand and take control of their own behavior, only creates a toxic learning environment where neither students nor teachers feel safe.

Introducing restorative discipline practices into a philosophy that continues to view discipline through a punitive lens will not produce the desired results. That’s why many schools are now returning to zero tolerance, claiming that they tried restorative discipline and it did not work. This is very similar to the frequent failure of one-to-one technology programs (a device for every student) that are rolled out prematurely, without proper teacher training. “Peace circles” are not a magic pill that alone can eradicate the institutional racism plaguing our schools. The shifting of minds (and hearts) away from punitive discipline must precede the changing of any policies or implementing of any new practices.

Perhaps most importantly, restorative discipline cannot be decreed from the top down. Superintendents cannot demand their way to more equitable systems of school discipline. New approaches to discipline are most successful when they begin in the classroom, grow to the counseling and principals’ offices, and then are modeled at the school level. Before making any district wide policy changes, superintendents should personally invest themselves in a comprehensive program of professional development that begins with a fundamental understanding of the historical factors that created the school-to-prison pipeline.

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