Research has shown that when addressing conflict in school, exclusionary practices such as expulsions and suspensions are not effective in either improving student behavior or school climate (Skiba, Shure, Middelberg & Baker, 2011). Suspensions are associated with negative student outcomes such as high levels of repeat offending, lower academic performance, higher school stop-out rates, decreased academic engagement, future disciplinary exclusion, and entry into the juvenile justice system (Costenbader & Markson, 1998; Skiba & Peterson, 1999). In addition, contrary to popular belief that suspending disruptive students will allow the rest of the class to maintain their focus and learn, a recent study revealed that high rates of suspensions negatively impacted math and reading scores for non-suspended students, possibly due to the anxiety and disconnection created in students in a punitive culture (Perry & Morris, 2014). What’s more, students of color and students with disabilities are suspended and expelled at higher rates than their peers (Civil Right Data Collection, 2011-2012).
Research makes it clear that exclusionary discipline practices do not work, and are applied disproportionately. Restorative practices, an effective alternative to exclusionary practices, proactively build healthy relationships and a sense of community to prevent and address conflicts and wrongdoings. While punitive responses focus on punishment, restorative practices focus on healing. In order to effectively shift to a restorative culture, a change in personal attitudes and wider school culture is required (International Institute for Restorative Practices, 2012). For a restorative model to be sustainable and effective for a learning community, all voices must be heard and all educators, staff, and administrators must be on the same page.
Learning communities interested in making this intentional shift may have questions; How will we find the time to have restorative conversations or conferences? How will we find the space for these practices? Do we have the capacity to hire staff that are responsible for facilitating these conversations? Some of these questions surfaced in the February GradMinnesota Advisory Council Meeting, which focused on this same topic. This article includes supporting research and has grown from conversations with Alexis Goffe, Dean of Students at Paladin Career and Technical High School and a featured speaker at the February GradMinnesota Advisory Council Meeting. This writing may serve as a follow-up piece to the meeting and an answer to some of the above questions.
According to Goffe, a solution to these questions is to ensure that the shift involves all educators, staff, and administrators. At Paladin, nearly all job descriptions include involvement in restorative practice. When a learning community adopts and embraces a school-wide culture and practice of restorative methods, restorative conversations and conferences can happen whenever, wherever, and with whomever. Additionally, as Goffe asserts, restorative practices should not only occur when an incident takes place but should be a constantly present framework and culture. “Engaging in restorative conversations when a student improves their attendance, helps with another student, or handles a challenging situation well is also critical,” says Goffe. Minnesota Department of Education School Safety Technical Assistance Center’s “Restorative Practices Implementation, Trainers, and Training: An Administrator’s Checklist” makes it clear that involvement from the entire staff is recommended. The checklist involves the following:
- All staff members are trained on restorative practices philosophy, values, and principles
- All staff members who work directly with students (including bus drivers, lunch/recess monitors) receive training on talking restoratively in schools.
- Most staff members who work directly with students (including bus drivers, lunch/recess monitors) receive training on restorative chats and impromptu conferencing.
- All adults in the school have a clear understanding of RP principles and processes and the relevance of RP to the learning community.
It is critical that all those that work with young people are aware of and invested in the principles of restorative culture. This leads to a sustainable and manageable shift to restorative culture that is applied in every situation.
Because exclusionary disciplinary action has been the norm and default for so long, if the implementation of restorative practice and culture is limited to only a small portion of the school setting more room remains for punitive and exclusionary practice. A single staff member or small team of staff that is responsible for restorative practices may experience burn out. It may be challenging for this staff member or team to address all conflicts in the school. Even in the case of school partnerships with community restorative practice organizations, it is not feasible to call in community facilitators for every situation. For many schools, the decision to invite facilitators into the school setting comes down to administrative discretion. As Goffe says, there’s a “gatekeeper” involved when only a portion of the school is responsible for restorative practices. For all conflicts that are not selected for restorative conversations or conferences, the door is then opened for harmful exclusionary methods to take place.
As Goffe suggests, we must reassess and redefine accountability in schools. Accountability is too often mistakenly associated with discipline, punishment, and zero tolerance. The emphasis here is on rules broken and punishments placed on young people by administrators. Restorative practices “look not at rule violation but at the violation of relationships…challenging all to repair the relationships” (Riestenberg, 2011). In this model, accountability is associated with restoring or maintaining relationships and addressing damage or hurt. Oftentimes following a conflict, there is harm and disconnection felt by teachers and staff which fuels a desire for student accountability in the form of punishment. In order to avoid a harmful redefining of accountability, the shift to restorative culture and practice should be school-wide with all staff involved. It is essential that all voices are heard and that time is taken to understand unique challenges and histories. Restorative methods serve to fully repair any hurt and move forward in a constructive and communicative manner that keeps young people in the classroom and learning.
Change in attitudes and the wider school culture must occur in order to truly shift to a restorative culture (International Institute for Restorative Practices, 2012). As Goffe suggests, we must “unlearn discipline, punishment, zero-tolerance, and our existing definitions of accountability”. Modifying the culture within our learning environments and connecting the practices to the wider mission of fostering community in which young people feel safe, supported, respected, and heard is critical to the success of all young people.
GradMinnesota and the Alliance With Youth would like to acknowledge and thank Alexis Goffe for sharing his expertise and perspective.
To learn more about effective alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, visit https://mnyouth.net/work/gradminnesota/resourcelibrary/effective-alternatives/
To learn more about Paladin Career & Technical High School, visit http://www.paladincareertech.com/
Additional Resources for Implementation:
- Minnesota Department of Education tools and resources on restorative practices
- Living Justice Press, a nonprofit publisher for restorative justice
Costenbader, V., & Markson, S. (1998). School suspension: A study with secondary students. Journal of School Psychology, 36(1), 59-82.
International Institute for Restorative Practices (2014). Improving School Climate- Evidence from Schools Implementing Restorative Practices. Retrieved from http://www.iirp.edu/pdf/IIRP-Improving-School-Climate.pdf
Minnesota Department of Education, School Safety Technical Assistance Center (2016). Restorative Practices: An Administrator’s Checklist. Retrieved from http://education.state.mn.us/MDE/dse/safe/clim/prac/index.htm
Perry, B.L. & Morris, E. W. (2014). Suspending Progress Collateral Consequences of Exclusionary Punishment in Public Schools. American Sociological Review. 79(6), 1067-1087
Riestenberg, N. (2011). Applying the framework: positive youth development and restorative practices. Minnesota Department of Education. Retrieved from http://www.iirp.edu/pdf/beth06_riestenberg.pdf
Skiba, R., & Peterson, R. (1999). The dark side of zero tolerance: Can punishment lead to safe schools? Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 372-382.
Skiba, R., Shure, L.A., Middelberg, L.V., & Baker, T.L. (2011). Reforming school discipline and reducing disproportionality in suspension and expulsion. In S.R. Jimerson, A.B. Nickerson, M.J. Mayer & M.J. Furlong (Eds.),The handbook of school violence and school safety: International research and practice (2nd Ed.)(pp. 515-528). New York: Routledge.