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School Climate & Safety

As Restorative Justice Spreads, When Do You Suspend?

By Ross Brenneman — April 22, 2013 3 min read
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A new wave of research shows that in disciplining students, out-of-school suspensions don’t help. More often, suspensions push students so far behind academically that dropping out becomes increasingly likely.

Critics of suspensions, and the zero-tolerance policies that fuel them, advocate for restorative practices, which have been making inroads across the country to demonstrated positive effect.

But restorative practices take time, in a way that simple punishment does not. And some students just won’t take to restorative justice. So while such practice might make for a good solution in a district with minimal discipline problems, how can it thrive in preternaturally unruly institutions?

Detroit is trying to find out. The Education Achievement Authority, which oversees 15 of the most troubled Michigan schools, is attempting to mitigate bad student behavior through positive interventions, including life coaching and behavioral assessments.

EAA schools are, to use a strictly scientific term, a hot mess. According to data that the EAA recently provided to Detroit News, EAA schools, which have a total of about 10,000 students, have recorded about 5,000 discipline-related infractions over the first five months of the EAA’s existence this year. Here’s a breakdown:

Disorderly conduct: 1,237
Truancy: 1,181
Fighting: 993
Insubordination: 992
Verbal abuse: 131
Student demonstration: 90
Use of/possession of a controlled substance: 85
Bullying/intimidation: 84
Threats of violence/coercion: 74
Possession of a firearm or other dangerous weapon: 39
Physical assault of staff: 33
Gambling: 28
Burglary, theft, robbery: 25
Harassment: 21
Consensual sexual misconduct: 7
Criminal sexual conduct: 5
Unauthorized use of school equipment: 5
Terroristic activity: 1

Michigan established the EAA last fall, in an attempt to turn around some of the state’s worst-performing schools. Officials within the EAA believe that by turning around behavior, academics can benefit, too. Because the problems are real:

Mumford High School, part of the EAA, is that bar on the left. Bloomfield Lahser High School, from the wealthier Oakland County suburbs of Detroit, is on the right. Mumford, with 355 students in the 2011-12 school year, reported 59 dropouts and 60 students off track. And Bloomfield, with its 198 students? One dropout, with four students off track.

Right now, Michigan is gambling that restorative practices can work. It took $6 million from the federal Safe and Supportive Schools grant to help improve student behavior. But Detroit has a lot of behavior to turn around.

Other big school systems are grappling with that, too. As we reported earlier this week, some members of the Los Angeles board of education want to significantly reduce the use of suspension. In an otherwise supportive editorial from The Los Angeles Times, though, the paper disagreed with any assertion that suspension has no place in school. “The district still has not figured out how to deal with the most persistently disruptive students, those who don’t respond to counseling, and it shouldn’t completely tie the schools’ hands,” it wrote.

Or, as Walt Gardner writes over at his Reality Check blog, “Trying to deal with these miscreants consumes an inordinate amount of time and energy for teachers and administrators. If they don’t alter their behavior after being counseled, I don’t see why they deserve to be in school where they hold their classmates hostage.”

As schools try to increase use of restorative justice, it’s worth asking what the limits of the technique actually are. If zero tolerance isn’t giving way to infinite tolerance, at what point do students stop getting chances?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.