Sowing Empathy and Justice in Schools Through Restorative Practices
By Mary Ellen Flannery
The kid wants to serve the volleyball, but his high school classmates ignore him. “Shut up!” he pleads, but they carry on—laughing as if he said nothing. He loses it, hurls the ball, storms out of the gym, and shouts, “I said, Shut your #&$% mouths!”
Suspending or expelling a student, especially one who is angry or disruptive, is like ordering a triple Big Mac. It’s a devilishly quick and easy answer—and popular, too—but it’s an unhealthy choice for the long-term well-being of students who, after just one suspension, are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out, and enter the criminal justice system.
“Far too many of our most vulnerable students are excluded from class for minor, non-violent behavior. Too often this sends them along an unnecessary journey down the school-to-prison pipeline,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. With that in mind, an increasing number of NEA members are turning to an alternative on the menu of school discipline: Restorative practices, including restorative justice.
Consider restorative practices to be the slow-cooked, more healthful alternative to suspensions or expulsions. The key ingredients are time, training, and a willingness to commit to respectful listening, but research shows that restorative practices reduce behavioral problems, including bullying. That’s why NEA is partnering with the Advancement Project and others to provide NEA members with training and resources on restorative practices, including a new online toolkit.
“I have a picture on my wall of a huge tree with its roots. The point of restorative practices is to get to the roots,” says Rita Danna, restorative justice facilitator for Littleton, Colo., schools. “These kiddos you see in your office all the time— you lecture them, you suspend them, and then they come back and you do it all over again. But the restorative process yanks at the root. It helps students realize they have the power to do things differently.”
Zero tolerance policies and other blame-and-punish approaches haven’t made our schools safer—they’ve actually done more harm than good, pushing kids out of learning environments and furthering inequities in our schools and in society. A better answer, one supported by NEA’s official position on school discipline, is one that prevents problems and builds understanding.
That kid—the one who served up something a little spicier than the volleyball? When he left the gym, he went straight to Danna. “He wanted to apologize, especially to the one kid that he had been speaking more directly to,” she recalls. He also wanted to share his feelings of frustration, and hear them acknowledged by his peers. And then, even better, he wanted to find ways to avoid future conflicts.
“The biggest thing we do is create empathy, and the way you get empathy is by talking about how you feel and by listening to how others feel,” says Danna. “I tell them that you have to understand each other’s perspectives. It doesn’t mean you have to be friends. But you do have to figure out how to get through your day together. It’s a very assertive way of teaching them to take care of themselves.”
Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than White students—and the racial disparities start at a shockingly early age. Four- and 5-year-old Black students account for almost half of the preschoolers suspended more than once from school, even as they make up just 18 percent of preschool students, U.S. Education Department statistics show.
What’s more, a closer look at the data reveals that students of color, including Native Americans, are more likely to be suspended, expelled, or arrested for behaviors that go ignored in their White peers. (LGBT youth and students with disabilities, of all races, also have disproportionately large discipline rates.) And, while White students are more likely to be nabbed for “observable” offenses, like fighting or drug possession, Black students are more likely to be disciplined for less objective offenses, like “disrespect.”
Race is undeniably a factor and disciplinary reactions often are led by implicit bias, federal investigators have concluded. “You really have to look at the data to see what kind of challenges you have and where those challenges might be. Nobody thinks it’s their school,” says Harry Lawson, associate director of NEA’s Human and Civil Rights department.
In Colorado, closing your eyes to the disparities is no longer an option. In 2013, lawmakers passed the Smart Schools Discipline Law, restricting the use of suspensions and expulsions and requiring the use of other strategies, including restorative practices. Since then, the number of suspensions has fallen by 25 percent—from 108,000 in 2007 to 80,000 last year. Meanwhile, school attendance and punctuality have improved by 30 percent.
These considerable differences reflect a dramatic shift in the way educators think about punishment, says Eleanor Harrison, a school psychologist and restorative justice specialist in the Cherry Creek School District, near Denver. It doesn’t mean they’ve gone soft on crime, says the NEA member, but it does mean educators see opportunities in the mistakes made by students—“not just to heal, but to grow.”
And Colorado isn’t alone. A restorative justice program reduced suspensions at one Oakland, Calif., middle school by 87 percent in its first year, according to a UC Berkeley School of Law evaluation. Now, nearly two dozen Oakland schools have similar programs. The evaluation said the program reduced fighting and “was helping relationships with other students.” Similarly, a report from Ypsilanti High School in Michigan, where restorative justice took root in 2012, found that 98 days of suspension were averted in 2013, and 87 percent of students said they had learned to better manage their conflicts.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
For some educators, restorative practices may be as simple as offering an authentic greeting to every student every day. For others, the practice revolves around in-depth facilitated “circles.” These circles can be let’s-get-to-know-each-other huddles held daily or weekly to lasso any potential disruptions to student learning. But many are held after rumors float and fists fly, with the aim of righting wrongs and restoring relationships.
A fly on the wall would surely hear these three questions: “What happened?” “Who has been affected?” “What can be done to repair the harm?” These conversations take time, acknowledges Harrison, but “to my mind, it’s a more educational process.” And you might be surprised at the reparations that students offer: “Sometimes we have to say, ‘OK, that’s too much! You really don’t have to sell your soul to make amends,’” she says.
Ultimately, it’s about creating opportunities for more learning. “Just yesterday, I went into a high school math class where the teacher said her students weren’t focused. They were on their phones during class, listening to music, sitting on the heaters,” says Danna. “I asked questions like, ‘What do you hear your teacher saying? How would it feel to be in her shoes?’ We ended up with the teacher agreeing to do more kinesthetic activities, Legos, etc., and the kids agreeing to be more respectful. They also came up with this flip-chart idea that the teacher could use to signal an appropriate time to use music.”
“You always need to walk away with an agreement, something that you can hold up and say, ‘We agreed to this,’” says Danna. Returning to the image of the tree on her wall, she says, “It really makes people accountable on a deeper level, on an emotional level.”
Photo: Julie Harris