Texas newspapers in March carried alarming articles about the volume of children at all grade levels suspended by administrators for “unacceptable” behaviors.
The number of suspensions is indeed remarkable and depressing. Clearly we have behavior problems and clearly we have applied remedies that do not work and have produced outcomes exactly opposite to our stated goals.
How we treat our children greatly shapes who they are. How we treat our children greatly shapes how they will treat their children.
The family and the schools have a massive impact on what children become.
Discipline should be an act of caring designed to protect both the child and society from behavior that is destructive to the individual and those around him or her.
If we do not like the outcomes of our child-rearing, we must change what we do while keeping our eye on the need to nurture.
Development of good character is a function of modeling, explicit instruction and consistency; a partnership between home and school is the ideal.
Incentives and discipline methods that hold violators accountable for their wrongdoing and educate them about the effect of misbehavior on others is necessary.
The immediate goal is restoration of right relationships between the person who engaged in misbehavior and the victims; the long-range goal is permanent conduct change by understanding first the pain caused to others and second to self by inappropriate behavior.
Punishment works to change behavior for only a small number, teaches the use of force, and generates resentment and anger. Zero-tolerance “solutions” have been a disaster for children, families, society and state.
Out of this experiment in discipline has come the phrase, “school-to-prison pipeline,” which, in fact, has research support.
A study by the American Psychological Association found that “zero tolerance policies have increased referrals to the juvenile justice system for infractions that were once handled in the schools, resulting in the school to prison pipeline.”
Misbehavior, including that which imposes personal harm to another person or group, must be addressed for the sake of the victim or victims and the perpetrator, as that person must change to be successful in society.
How best to right the wrong and teach a good lesson to the participants is the question.
All agree that the perpetrator must be held accountable for the action. Restorative discipline advocates argue that the offender must understand the harm he or she has caused.
A proactive approach to school discipline would provide a “check-in time” every morning for students to express how they are feeling in a safe environment.
Such a structure would provide a process that could be called “preventive,” conditioning participants to a mechanism for respectful listening and allowing expression of feelings and conditions that might lead to outbursts and anti-social behavior in stressful conditions.
Conflicts, however, will occur. When they do, the preventative structure may be adapted and used to reconcile the parties, set right relationships among them, and mediate harmful effects of misbehavior by one or more students against a classmate or the class.
Both proactive and responsive processes use a circle configuration, which allows all participants to be face to face with each other.
Rules for restorative practices require a trained facilitator (teacher or peer mediator) to convene the activity and allow all to express themselves.
The results of a successful circle process may or may not include apology and forgiveness, but will involve agreement and plan of action (monitored) on what the offending party needs to do to make it right to restore harmony.
Outcomes include accountability, consequences, learning life lessons, and restoration of peaceful relationships.
A school that adopts restorative processes is a school that experiences over time a cultural revolution.
It can expect far fewer disruptive events and consequently far fewer suspensions and expulsions as well as an increase in pro-social behavior, higher grades and higher graduation rates.
Another important outcome is fewer school referrals to the courts, which leads to the severing of the school-to-prison pipeline and creation of positive behaviors.
The Edward White Middle School in San Antonio is part of the Northside School District, which holds the distinction of suspending more students than almost any other school district in Texas.
It adopted restorative discipline in the 2012-13 school year.
First-year results include an 84-person drop in out-of-school suspension, and an overall drop in suspensions of 44 percent.
The school has appropriately made a three-year commitment to the program and will assess at the end of that time.
The promise of restorative discipline is changing a culture of schools and, over time, families and society into one where peaceful relationships are the norm.
The bottom line is that we must devote energy to reducing the flow into our criminal justice system and that requires a complete rethinking of how parents, teachers, school administrators, police, prosecutors and others discipline children.
Edwin Davis is coordinator of Restorative Justice Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas and has been a professor of political science and criminal justice at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, for 40 years. A longer version of this article first appeared in the May 2014 newsletter of Restorative Justice Ministries Network (RJMN) of Huntsville, Texas, and is used with permission.
Editor’s note: Bill Kleiber and Emmett Solomon of RJMN are featured in EthicsDaily.com’s newest documentary, “Through the Door,” which focuses on prisons and faith. To learn more about the film, click here. To order, click here.