School discipline: Is kinder, gentler approach working?

Fewer kids are getting sent to the principal’s office as schools adopt restorative justice alternatives to suspensions.

My experience with strict discipline in a parochial school made me yearn for a kinder, gentler classroom for my own kids. What I didn’t realize is those ruler-wielding nuns created much more orderly hallways and classes than my children typically experienced.

I was surprised at not only how much disruption occurs in classrooms today, but how much is tolerated. I’m not talking about students who toss desks or threaten violence; those offenses are rare and prompt action. I’m referring to kids who fall out of their chairs for laughs, talk over or back to the teacher and treat class activities as unwanted background noise to be drowned out or shouted down.

Disruptive kids increasingly are not being exiled to the principal’s office; their behaviors are being addressed in class through a practice known as restorative justice. A blend of family therapy, people’s court and town hall, restorative justice allows students to sit in a circle and address what happened with the teacher and affected parties and make amends.

The concept — which requires schoolwide training — is seen as an antidote to zero tolerance policies in which wrongdoers got no second chances and faced harsh punishment. In many schools now, students cannot be suspended for conduct violations, such as breaking dress code, failing to obey classroom rules or using profanity.

Alarmed over soaring suspension rates and racial inequities in who is suspended, schools across Georgia are adopting restorative justice. In a pilot at some schools, DeKalb saw a 50 percent drop in disciplinary actions and a 75 percent decrease in suspensions.

The question is whether fewer disciplinary actions and suspensions mean fewer infractions. If schools are under pressure to show declining rates of bullying or fighting, how can we be sure incidents aren’t being under-reported?

One of the largest labs for restorative justice is New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged during his campaign to reduce school suspensions. To that end, he mandated documentation from principals of all attempted restorative interventions before a suspension could be approved. The district advised teachers, “Every reasonable effort must be made to correct student behavior through guidance interventions and other school-based strategies such as restorative practices.”

As a result, suspensions plummeted in New York City schools. But are students safer?

That issue is being debated in the wake of a fatal attack in a Bronx high school in September. An 18-year-old student at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation stabbed two classmates who threw pencil bits and paper balls at him in a history class. Abel Cedeno killed a 15-year-old and seriously injured a 16-year-old. Cedeno brought a three-inch switchblade to school to protect himself from what he described as persistent bullying, although not by the two younger students he attacked.

Urban Assembly did not appear dangerous based on its discipline data, but parents described a school where bullying and disrespectful behaviors went unchecked. Critics of restorative justice cited a school climate survey four years ago at Urban Assembly in which 94 percent of teachers said they’d recommend the school and 80 percent of students said they felt safe in the building. Last year, only 19 percent of teachers said they’d recommend the school and 55 percent of students said they felt safe.

In his study “School Discipline Reform and Disorder,” Manhattan Institute researcher Max Eden found that, at the same time Mayor de Blasio heralded safer schools, climate surveys told a different story. From 2013-14 to 2015-16, Eden found “more than half of schools saw a deterioration in mutual respect, and only a fifth saw an improvement, according to students. On physical fighting, gang activity, and drug use, three times as many schools saw a deterioration as saw an improvement, according to students.”

As with algebra-for-all to whole language, proponents of restorative justice contend the concept is sound; weak implementation is the culprit. One problem is that research has not yet carefully examined what constitutes an effective restorative justice program. (The U.S. Department of Education has funded a three-year study.)

In the meantime, teachers face a balancing act between the students who obey the rules and those who flout them. In a new study of the academic and behavioral consequences of discipline policy changes in Philadelphia Public Schools, Thomas B. Fordham Institute researchers noted: “Suspensions may have costs for suspended students, but these must be balanced against the necessity of maintaining an orderly learning environment. And the individuals best positioned to make those judgment calls, and to gauge how effective future approaches to discipline may be, are those on the front lines.”

Reader Comments 0

53 comments
Astropig
Astropig

RJ is a gift beyond price to the Homeschool/Private School/Choice movement.Putting the "rights" of bullies,classroom disruptors and belligerent troublemakers on a par with their targets mocks the very concept of "justice". But that's okay-The federal paperwork looks good.


Conditioning victims to be "sympathetic" to their tormentors is a great way to push mainstream students into a heightened cynicism of all government endeavors.It teaches them that their protectors (teachers and principals) will jump up and down on the scales of real justice to achieve a desired outcome (phonied-up discipline numbers) so that they can all arrive at "healing'.


Heaven only knows how much pain that this Ed-U-Fad has cost a lot of innocent families.Bullied kids stop wanting to go the school and their parents can't figure out why.They start adopting the ways of their tormentors because they are taught that we must not "judge" such behavior.They stop reporting additional abuse and assault because they know that nothing will happen to the accused (the real aim of RJ).Teachers become cynical and more estranged from good students and parents, as they too,are hostages to a misguided social experiment.

It seems that we've managed to design a system that even worse than Zero Tolerance.

MASR
MASR

So keeping disruptive disrespectful kids in the classroom is the educational priority???

The kids who want to learn have to WAIT while a tribunal group process deals with the disrupters??? 

The teacher is distracted over and over from truly teaching and faces personal consequences if the fools in the classroom get out of control???

Conclusion: there are a bunch of IDIOTS who call themselves "educators" who propagate a bunch of BS. Get your kids out of the insane government schools and homeschool!!!!   

feedback1
feedback1

Liberals will never face facts when it comes to blacks. Three out of four black children grow up without a father in the home, and the results are as devastating to academic outcomes as they are predictable.

When will liberals start valuing children over political correctness?

pinecone312
pinecone312

I would think an education would include appropriate behavior training. These disruptive kids will find it hard if not impossible to hold a job in the real world. Employers are not forced to cater to their demands or put up with their behavior and neither should the schools. 

Shira Newman
Shira Newman

The problem is that usually a school (or system) says -- okay, now we're doing restorative justice! yet no one has any idea what that means -- no training no nothing. My son's charter school uses it, and it's a tiny school, so -- well, it works sort of. But schools are right that reward and punishment doesn't work. The problem comes in that in a classroom, if there is a disruption, then there are other kids who want to learn who cannot. And -- if you have 200 students, working with each individually about their own issues becomes difficult if not impossible.

teachermom4
teachermom4

What I have observed with PBIS is a smoke-and-mirrors effect. What used to be an administrative referral is now an "action plan". In an action plan, students dutifully write down what they did wrong, why it's a bad choice, and how they will do things differently in the future. The teacher writes their version of events in comments, a copy goes home to the parent for signature, and all is well. It takes 3 action plans in a certain time frame to be converted into an administrative referral. Voila, referrals are down. It's a miracle! Unfortunately, behaviors haven't changed.  Admittedly, I am at a school right now that has pretty good student behavior. At my previous school, I saw staff bending over backwards to reward problem students for meeting standard behavioral expectations. The result was that kids who did not deserve it got the lion's share of rewards, while the truly good kids did not. It did not change the behavior of the miscreants one iota.


PBIS does not exist in the real world. I don't get bonuses for showing up on time. I don't get bonuses for making lesson plans. I don't get bonuses for grading papers. Heck, I have to work many hours outside my contract just to be "proficient". How are we preparing kids for reality when we are teaching them that meeting minimum expectations should be rewarded and praised?

downward_spiral
downward_spiral

My children attended public elementary school and I volunteered year after year to be "room mom" so I would periodically be in the classroom.  While the teacher's taught, there was a constant drone of children talking to one another.  The children would get up to wander around, comb their hair, apply makeup, throw things at one another, and harass each other to entertain themselves.  It was constant chaos and the student's who wanted to learn had to listen really, really hard to hear the teacher.


The reason for the inattention and outright disrespect became crystal clear at every PTA meeting I attended.  The Principal would be on stage practically yelling into the microphone to be heard over the constant drone of parents who talked non-stop to one another, smacked gum, got up to wander around, comb their hair, apply makeup, etc.


I wanted to stand up and yell at top of my lungs for everyone to SHUT UP so the Principal could be heard.


My kids attended private school for middle and high school.  You can hear a pin drop in the classroom, as well as at all school meetings.  I am so lucky to have this option!

atlmom
atlmom

@downward_spiral right..and sadly, people think 'school choice' is evil -- but the thing is the people with money have school choice.  It is those without who get shafted again.

Jeff Mraz
Jeff Mraz

Right up your alley, D'Aloisio.

CaroleVeschi
CaroleVeschi

I have found in my child case many teachers in special needs classes not fully trained and unsupported. They are unstaffed and overwhelmed. Basic aspects of education are not being met over and over again. There was no simple light dimmers or earphones to block out the noise to calm these children. Special need children can be very disruptive and unsafe. They often run out of classrooms, hit other students, throw things because their needs are not being addressed. In my son's class, there was not even a grade level curriculum. I believe sweeping disruption under the carpet helps no one. Dealing with it takes a willingness to change. 

EddieHall
EddieHall

You ask schools or administrators to reduce suspensions and you get your wish. At what cost? Disruptive students need to understand, come to school and behave, get an education, or don't and you will be sent home. WHY is it too much to expect people to behave or suffer consequences?  The REAL answer is to institute learning paths as children exit 8th grade. The paths being a general, tech/vocational or college prep diploma. An education is a valuable and EXPENSIVE thing. 

readcritic
readcritic

@EddieHall You are right. Education is an expensive thing. Taxpayers are paying dearly for students who disrupt and refuse to accept responsibility for poor performance and grades. Unfortunately, teachers must magically transform those who exhibit severe behavior disorders into civilized, erudite students without the support of parents, administrators, or the law. Sisyphus had an easier task.

Melinda Nguyen
Melinda Nguyen

There are more and more students with severe discipline problems every year. While suspension might not help those students in the long run.. it does create a more productive learning environment for all the other kids.

Admin1
Admin1

Someone needs to listen to teachers. A lot of classrooms are out of control. Students who want to learn cannot because of the constant disruptions from students who don't  care. 

Teachers are burnt out! School boards and superintendents must set sound discipline policy and stick to it, instead of appeasing parents. By the way these parents know that their child is a holy terror.


I blame school boards and superintendents who do not support principals,  who in turn do not support  teachers. In the end students lose because they  receive an inferior education. 

atlmom
atlmom

@Admin1 why are those kids even there, if they don't want to be there, they should just leave...and the teachers and principals should ask them to.

Yma Aubain Berrocal
Yma Aubain Berrocal

It works for most students, but students with severe behavior issues need additional intervention beyond kindness or discipline.

atlmom
atlmom

most of the time someone comes in and says:  this is what we do now.  No training, no nothing.  So it's not really implemented correctly.  Those needing additional intervention are *precisely* the students who need this most, or they just end up in prison later on.  They need these interventions and those who are most reluctant...are again the ones who need it most.

They need to hear that *someone* cares.  That *someone* wants them to do well.


Go see the movie "the mask you live in" -- eye opening.

atlmom
atlmom

which doesn't work at all.


Go read "lost at school" -- that is the philosophy that needs to be followed.  being 'strict' and throwing kids out of school just leads them on the path they are going on. 

readcritic
readcritic

It is absolutely accurate that administrators do not want to deal with discipline problems in classrooms today. In high schools, especially, numerous discipline referrals from teachers put the school on the "dangerous school" list and administrators offer no support and actually manipulate the reporting of discipline issues by controlling the submission of teacher discipline referrals. If a teacher reports students who disrupt class, it is the teacher who is disciplined and zapped on the TKES evaluation. It is noted that the teacher failed to mesmerize all 190+ students with riveting lessons that differentiate for all levels while keeping each and every one on task every second. A low TKES score then results in the teacher's reduction in pay when reported to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. After two years of administratively subjective low evaluation ratings, a teacher (who has no recourse of rebuttal) could lose his/her teaching certificate. Teachers are also given administrative directives to pass students using any creative means possible. Students who are truant, drug users, fetal alcohol and/or shaken baby syndrome children, Special Ed, ADHD, pregnant, previously suspended for major infractions, frequently incarcerated or currently wearing ankle monitors, and/or who are repeating the grade over and over due to lack of personal effort are intentionally jammed into a class of 35 or more students. Any ensuing chaos or student failures are always the teacher's fault. The student is never held accountable these days. Education has reached a new low. When a student continuously fails a grade year after year for any of the previously mentioned issues and stays in school until he/she is 22, the taxpayer foots the bill for all those extra years of "free" education for that "entitled " individual. Until discipline is restored to the classroom and teachers are allowed to do their jobs, there is little hope of improvement.


ErnestB
ErnestB

@readcritic


Who established a directive that penalizes teachers for attempting to provide an orderly learning environment by reporting persistent disrupters?  Are teachers also penalized if they suffer bodily harm from the disrupters?

class80olddog
class80olddog

@ErnestB @readcritic  Politicians (Mayor Bill de Blasio).  Whoever hires superintendents like Beverly Hall - those people that YOU elected.

FreeScreech
FreeScreech

AMEN!

The students run the school. Our society and government has allowed parents to shed responsibility on teachers to fix disrespectful & inappropriate behaviors with hands tied behind our backs. Democrats and Republicans are to blame!!!

Listen to those in the trenches instead of punishing us!!

class80olddog
class80olddog

"Education has reached a new low"  - and the educational system wonders why parents are seeking a new route (charters, private schools, vouchers, CHOICE)

atlmom
atlmom

@class80olddog yet if you mention school choice to many they are horrified.  I don't understand it.

class80olddog
class80olddog

So it sounds like teachers are in full agreement about the failure of the disciplinary system, and rail against "PC" in private, but are scared to death to actually acknowledge it in public, lest they be canned from their job.  Administrators claim that they cannot buck the "system", because they owe their jobs to the politicians.  And WHO elects these politicians - YOU DO!

Bruce Kendall
Bruce Kendall

A friend (Aiken Faque) made the following general comments about this post: "Disruptions in class steals instructional time from all students." And, "We fail institutionally and publicly to insist that Teachers are leaders unless they are, a Department Chair, or a member of the school's Leadership Team." And, "If the Teacher does not lead, chaos leads." And, "Some of my peers have complained that their classrooms have become Socially Political Combat Zones, instead of a safe place to teach and learn." Any mistakes in the exact wording (or grammar) of the general comments are mine alone. I omitted all the exclamatory words and recorded the general comments afterward.

DAH1867
DAH1867

  I teach K in metro Atlanta and have for 20 years now. I enjoy my work with students, overall. But as change has happened in the last 10 years.  Now I am disciplined through ridicule from admin, lower TKES evals, and simply the tearing up of referral forms should  I feel a student needs administrative review. Today I rarely refer, except in extreme cases where harm to other students is eminent. I do not refer if the harm is to myself, such as punching, biting, kicking, or destruction of my personal property. If I do  I am shamed, the school admin is disciplined, the school and county lose CCRPI points, and finally funding can be reduced if referral rates aren't lowered.  For myself, a referral results in eventual conferences with parents, counselors and administration some time down the road.  No immediate steps are taken and a mountain of paperwork is generated, taking further time from instruction. This is simply reinforcing the negative behavior of the student in question, and encouraging copycat behavior in other students who see that nothing directly happens to curtail the behavior of the one.

The comments of LJTCD below are accurate on all counts.  Ms. Downey describes the tip of the discipline iceberg in public schools.  None of which is talked about because it is so very politically incorrect! Most teachers enjoy teaching their subjects and are are very qualified to do so.  However, often little teaching is accomplished because of constant behavior issues and exceedingly limited support or effective methods in dealing with the issues. 

  PBIS only works in theory, and encourages a reward expectation for every small compliances.  Restorative justice sounds good, too.  It works best in a therapy office, not a classroom.  "Chill Zone," "Australia," "Calming Area" are all warm and fuzzy and work well for the students who rarely need them.  Those who do need to calm down often, use these as a place for further misbehavior.  Teachers end up spending so much time on the behavior interventions and data tracking and rewarding of compliance and conferencing that there is little time left in the day for the other student's right to instruction.  Yet, that instruction and learning is why we are all there at all.  It's a big Catch 22!

    Combine this with ever increasing and unpaid mandates on teacher time and teacher bought materials, it is hardly a surprise that new teachers leave for other careers and many veteran teachers are counting the days till they are eligible for retirement.  

    End of rant.  I still have a few days of winter break left to enjoy before starting again.  Thank you, Ms. Downey, for calling attention to these issues. I end with this thought: There is always hope and room for improvement!

class80olddog
class80olddog

" I teach K in metro Atlanta " - I am SO sorry!

kaelyn
kaelyn

Restorative justice probably works best when it’s used to address minor infractions. Students who commit serious offenses and those with ongoing behavior problems need other interventions. I wonder if DeKalb has clear cut guidelines concerning who is eligible for restorative justice, or if they just rolled out the program to cook their numbers. Wouldn’t be the first time...

I do have a hard time understanding how anyone in Georgia is alarmed by who’s being suspended. DeKalb schools are very racially and socio-economically segregated, with very few white students. The majority of student suspensions are going to be black teachers/administrators suspending black students, simply because of the district’s demographics. The overwhelming majority of students in these schools never cause any problems, and they aren’t worried about being suspended because they’re in school to learn.

We’ve done private and public schools, and I can honestly say that the private schools have their own discipline problems. The students get dropped off in more expensive cars and take more exotic vacations, but there are out of control kids there, too. Their parents write large checks during the annual fund season and Junior is allowed to remain another year and terrorize his classmates. I figured we could get the same thing (more of it, though!) in a decent public school and save $40k a year.

Gone are the days when schools set the rules and actually enforced them.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@kaelyn  No problem - just clear the way for charters and private schools who DO enforce rules to take over the educational system.  Just remember that traditional public schools HAD THE CHANCE to correct this problem, and CHOSE not to do so.

readcritic
readcritic

@kaelyn Discipline problems know no bounds. Until discipline issues are no longer tolerated by administrators, politicians, and the law, education is the loser. A student who frequently disrupts class and is not held accountable for his/her failure to do what is expected in his/her performance as a student should be shown the door. Taxpayers should not be expected to pay for tolerating any individual who interferes with another student's right to an education. This is what is wrong in general in society today. The victim of the crime always suffers greater loss of rights and privileges than the perpetrator of the injustice. 

class80olddog
class80olddog

@readcritic @kaelyn  They did away with official tracking, but parents would not stand for their "high achievers" to be placed with the average umbskulls, so they went to IB and AP classes.  Try getting into a top school without a lot of these classes under your belt. Colleges know that an A in a regular class is worthless.

UGAGuy
UGAGuy

@class80olddog Not true.  Public schools aren't allowed to address the problem because of onerous federal regulations.  Removing a problem child from school is nearly impossible thanks to the federal DOE.  If public schools were allowed to choose, they certainly would remove chronic problems.

MaryBaggs
MaryBaggs

@class80olddog @kaelyn Lots of pressure on teachers in the charters and private schools to "under-report" and "handle it" -- just ask the teachers!


atlmom
atlmom

@kaelyn the ones that commit 'serious offenses' are the ones who need it most.  Read "lost at school"

kaelyn
kaelyn

@atlmom I will check out the book as I’m always open to being more informed. I know that many kids with behavior issues are crying out for help, but I don’t think it’s in any way fair to allow an entire class to suffer indefinitely due to the poor behavior of a few. Now we expect teachers to be miracle workers and learn whatever the latest new intervention is, in addition to everything else they do on top of actually teaching.

There have to be school behavioral standards that students are expected to follow. Yes, we give kids second chances and work with them when problems arise. We can’t, however, force everyone else to be held hostage because they also have rights.

class80olddog
class80olddog

" I heard that they implemented "restorative justice" in the military" - a quote from just before America lost the war with North Korea.

class80olddog
class80olddog

And you are wondering what was driving the charter school/ vouchers initiative?  Here's yor sign-

class80olddog
class80olddog

They have taken away every disciplinary action I knew from school except for expulsion and replaced them with ISS.   "Please don't throw me in that there briar patch!"  Kids who don't want to be in a classroom are "punished" by - wait for it - removing them from the classroom!  What rocket scientist came up with that idea!  Probably the same person that says when my 3-month old baby cries, I should reason with him/her and they will quit crying.  Discipline is one of the "trinity"of problems that I believe have nearly destroyed the American educational system - the other two being social promotion, and attendance.  All of this is the result of the PC movement.

class80olddog
class80olddog

Mayor Bill de Blasio said "we need to reduce suspensions" and lo and behold, suspensions plummeted.  Just like when Beverly Hall said "test scores need to rise" and lo and behold, test scores rose.  The educational establishment has learned that when impossible PC goals are put upon them, the best way is to CHEAT!  And then they wonder why teachers are leaving the profession in droves!  It's not the pay, it is the battle conditions.

LJTCD
LJTCD

The entire US has bought into  program PBIS which rewards bad behavior. The children are praised when they stop a behavior. The staff are required to give out tickets all day long to reward good behavior in hopes children stop bad behavior but I don't see that it makes a difference for the children with bad behavior. It is simply  ridiculous. The CCRPI scores that rate schools have a component that takes away points for discipline referrals and suspensions. Yes, you are penalized for disciplining students. Teachers are under pressure from the administration and literally called to the carpet if they send children to the office. Teachers are docked on their TKES evaluation as not being able to control a classroom and have no classroom management if they try to discipline children at some schools. They are actually told NOT to send students to the office. I have  seen an administrator tell students the teacher was having a bad day. This would be one reason young teachers are leaving the profession after 3-5 years. 75% of new teachers leave due to the lack of support and hours required. It's very sad. The prisoners are running the prison. When you see reports of a 5 year old being suspended and feel badly for them, DON'T. I have seen these little children clear off teachers desks and throw chairs while screaming uncontrollably. It's truly insane what is happening in schools across America. Teachers aren't picking on specific students either. I can tell you 100% that teachers don't look at the color of a child and don't think about their race. We aren't wired that way at all. We just see children, period. There is simply a cultural difference in how children are raised and what is acceptable in their home and the behavior they bring to school. Interrupting teachers, laughing out loud, and getting up to walk around and disrupt others shouldn't be aloud but now it is thanks to people crying fowl.   America, we have a huge problem! 

CelestialNavigator
CelestialNavigator

@LJTCD I entirely agree with your observations.  Could you elaborate with reference to "cultural difference?"  These words are open to many interpretations.  Thanks.  

atlmom
atlmom

@LJTCD yet reward and punishment does not work. 

Bill & Ginny
Bill & Ginny

Interesting article.  When you compare / contrast this article with the article about a year ago that purported to show the racial inequities in Henry County around discipline and suspensions, you wonder if we have gotten it right.  Certainly does not sound like it to me.

readcritic
readcritic

@Bill & Ginny A teacher who had only 5 white students out of 200 was told by the administrator that he/she was reporting too many racial discipline referrals. How does a teacher reply to that????????????

CelestialNavigator
CelestialNavigator

@Bill & Ginny What do you mean by "racial inequities?"  And, how do these "inequities" correlate to :discipline and suspensions?"  Thanks.