Rethinking Punitive School Discipline

Rethinking Punitive School Discipline

High school seniorsBrooke Wilson and CynthiaBoateng call for policies that help, not harm

by Brooke Wilson and Cynthia Boateng, April 15, 2015

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Rethinking Punitive School Discipline

Mistakes are as common as they are guaranteed. No matter who you are, and regardless of your particular walk in life, you are bound to stumble sometime. While no one aspires to blow it, one can only hope their mistakes are met with grace and second chances.

The notion of second chances is not at all revolutionary. Yet imagine a world where no one, or only a small few, received do-overs. Worse still, imagine a world where people are penalized for mistakes that aren’t mistakes at all; where children are punished for trivial and non-consequential matters. I wish this were an imaginary tale. Sadly, it’s reality for many students across the country.

Consider our own school, T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA. With more than 3,000 students, T.C. Williams is among the largest schools in the area. Our school population is evenly divided among Latinos, African Americans and Whites. Yet students of color—students like us– are pushed out of school through suspensions and expulsions at disproportionately higher rates than our White counterparts, often for things as minor as taking a cookie off of a cafeteria table, or wearing what some deem ‘provocative’ clothing.

T.C. Williams has an opportunity to right the wrongs. For the past several years, Alexandria Teens United and Tenants and Workers United have urged the school to consider Restorative Justice (RJ), an alternative to harsh school disciplinary policies and practices. Just last week, a group of students met with Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Alvin Crawley and discussed the many benefits of RJ; it fosters healthy school climates and creates stronger bonds between students and teachers. We urged him to fully implement the program, which has been proven to build and maintain a cohesive school community. He signaled support for restorative justice and we intend to hold his feet to the fire.

Increasingly, educators nationwide are partnering with parents, students, district officials and policymakers to move away from harsh school disciplinary policies, favoring instead restorative practices and policies.

School administrators have a variety of resources to help them implement the program, should they choose to do so. In 2014, civil rights and education advocacy groups including Advancement Project, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association developed a toolkit, Restorative Practices: Fostering Healthy Relationships in Classrooms & Schools, to walk schools and educators through the implementation of RJ.

At T.C. Williams, many students of color continue to be suspended for minor offenses, or offenses that aren’t offenses at all. In February, when a lunchroom fight occurred at the school, close to three dozen police officers were called in to bring so-called “order” to an incident that involved roughly six students. Unfortunately, the students involved in the altercation were not the only ones who suffered. Many students who were in the lunchroom received suspensions merely for being in the vicinity of the scuffle.

As studies have shown, students who are suspended lose valuable instruction time causing many to fall behind on their studies. The University of California at Los Angeles recently found U.S. students lost 18 million days of instruction in the 2011-2012 school year as a result of out-of-school suspensions. No one is saying students shouldn’t be held accountable for legitimate mistakes. But we should implement programs like restorative justice that hold children accountable and help them make amends for mistakes.

Restorative Justice isn’t a hall pass to misbehave. It’s a strategy to create better school climates. We hope Superintendent Crawley will make good on his promise and fully implement a program that offers no downside and creates a positive environment for all.

Brooke Wilson and Cynthia Boateng are Seniors at Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School, and members of the youth advocacy group Alexandria Teens United.

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