Recognizing that zero tolerance policies have failed, schools are beginning to turn to restorative justice to reduce suspensions and expulsions. The goal is to intervene early in situations that have the potential to escalate into major incidents (“Opening Up, Students Transform a Vicious Circle,” The New York Times, Apr. 4).
Although the strategy is known by different names, almost all rely on a circle practice. This involves students, teachers and administrators meeting together, listening carefully, and speaking respectfully about the feelings that led to confrontations. With this approach, schools in Oakland, Calif. saw their overall suspension rate drop from 12 percent in 2011 to 8 percent in 2012. Other school districts report similar results.
The success is built on the principle that it’s hard to fight others if you feel close to them. That probably explains why officers on both sides in World War I put an end to the informal truce that saw enemies exchanging food for the week prior to Christmas. They correctly understood that such acts of kindness would undermine the will of their men to wage war.
As schools become more racially and ethnically diverse, the need for restorative practices grows. Students from dramatically different backgrounds often don’t understand behavior that departs from what they are used to. As a result, suspicion frequently leads to hostility. By bringing the parties together, reformative practices provide them with the opportunity to express themselves. What was initially viewed as disrespect can turn out to be misperception.
Relying on police officers to address the issue is counterproductive. Students who misbehave used to wind up in detention, but now they often find themselves in the criminal courts (“With Police in Schools, More Children in Court,” The New York Times, Apr. 12). For example, police officers in Texas issue more than 100,000 misdemeanor tickets each year.
When I was teaching, Third World immigration slowly changed the composition of the student body at my high school. Different languages and different cultures combined to create tension, which led to a spike in suspensions. Unfortunately, we were given few coping strategies. As a result, instruction was negatively affected. Looking back, I wish that the restorative practices now in use were available then. They would have made the transition much easier for all concerned.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.