In this installment of Dan and Larry’s discussion based on their shared focus on developing and sustaining equitable, supportive, and restorative systems of school discipline, they cover remedies and approaches to the problem. See previous installments here.
Larry: In your book, you talk about specific remedies that have begun to generate evidence of impact and success. Which give you most hope for the future and which ones do you think maybe are most critical?
Dan: Until very recently, restorative practices, also thought of as restorative justice, has not gotten a lot of attention. In simple terms, there is a major event, like a student bullying another, graffiti sprayed on the wall, or something else that is very visible. Victims confront bullies, and they try to understand each other, or the person who sprayed the graffiti makes amends somehow. Restorative practices involve the community in the beginning in terms of creating the rules. Teachers are trained to work with their whole class in a problem-solving mode before they get to major incidences of misbehaviors, so when things get disruptive, the community works toward solutions. The aim is to engage students as community members and problem solvers.
A lot of folks, especially with a zero tolerance mentality, feel that if kids make a threatening gesture, they have to be out immediately. The state of Virginia has adopted the “Threat Assessment Protocol.” It’s imported from the juvenile justice system, and is a tiered response to help educators distinguish really serious threats from the kind of typical adolescent poor judgement and use of words that are not legitimate threats. It has been shown to reduce racial disparity as well as the number of kids who are suspended for exhibiting threatening behavior. A lot of folks after Columbine said that we need to be really harsh and zero-tolerant about threatening behavior. But kicking those kids out of school hasn’t stopped that kind of violence. In fact, some violent episodes came from kids who were suspended. Kids who have problematic behaviors need to get adult attention in ways that can provide intervention and that don’t necessarily kick them out of school.
Larry: We find in our work that the most effective schools and districts use a combination of different practices and protocols. They are doing things like the Threat Assessment Protocol and they are also making sure that teachers use restorative practices in their day-to-day interactions to facilitate conversations with and among students. There are many different examples of restorative culture in schools, from very informal practices to really formal protocols that are used by all of the adults. So the teachers have their role, administrators have their role, the social workers and psychologists and other mental health specialists play their role. Everyone is contributing in some way to establishing a restorative, problem-solving-focused culture and really working at creating safe and inclusive schools where students are engaged and students stay there.
Dan: Garfield High School, in Los Angeles, has PBIS and heavy investment in parent engagement. It went from more than 600 suspensions to just one last year. It is a very relaxed place. It’s an urban school, mostly kids of color, mostly kids on free and reduced lunch. But it’s working really successfully. It feels more like a college campus. There are a lot of parents present. It is a very calm and orderly high school. It’s a place where the kids feel cared about.
Alternative schools can be on either side of this equation. You can have alternative schools where kids are finally getting a small classroom with the attention and care they want and educators who are well trained to help them succeed. On the other hand, there is a study in the book about Jefferson County, Kentucky. Kentucky has among the highest juvenile justice incarceration rates in the country. And in Jefferson Country, being sent to the alternative school is a path towards prison. It correlates with a very high rate of kids who wind up in the juvenile justice system. This suggests that these kids are being pushed into a separate school that is vastly inadequate to meet their needs and doesn’t have a caring, nurturing, or supportive environment. These kids often are not returning to the general school or if they are, they wind up back in alternative schools or in the juvenile justice system pretty quickly. We also saw a huge racial disparity there in terms of who is winding up in these alternative schools.