When students returned to Kansas City, Mo., public schools after the pandemic, they came back with higher levels of trauma and anxiety, which led to more conflicts and less impulse control. All of that together created an environment for heightened behavioral issues, according to Lateshia Woodley, the district’s former assistant superintendent of student support.
But the district had already been working to become trauma-informed and had put into place restorative justice practices. The combined strategies meant that educators worked to understand students’ trauma, and to help them resolve conflicts on their own in small groups, before resorting to suspension or expulsion to address behavior incidents. And that has long been seen as important, because research has found that out-of-school suspensions fall heavier on some student groups, such as students of color or low-income students, cutting their access to instruction and limiting future opportunities.
With its discipline supports in place, the Kansas City district saw an overall decline in discipline incidents in 24 of 35 schools in the district in the 2021-22 school year, compared with 2019-20. (Only 32 schools had complete data for both years.)
That pattern repeated itself across the country as student suspensions, both in and out-of-school, have declined from their pre-pandemic levels, according to research by Richard Welsh, an associate professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education. The steep drop slowed, though, in 2021-22 as students returned to in-person learning. But Welsh believes the pre-pandemic suspension numbers would have rebounded by now were it not for districts like Kansas City turning to restorative justice and other non-punitive practices over the past five years.
Using state-level data, interviews with district leaders, and media reports about discipline, Welsh put together one of the first looks at school discipline and its reshaping over the course of the pandemic. His findings help fill a gap because the most comprehensive dataset on school discipline, which is compiled every two years by the Office of Civil Rights, has not been published since 2019.
More districts have turned to restorative justice these days, realizing that students need extra support now, as they recover from the trauma and disruption of the pandemic, Welsh said. And some, like Kansas City, that had been implementing those practices saw the benefits when students returned to the building, even with the spike in behavioral incidents.
“Suspending students is not the answer, because what are they learning from that experience?” Woodley said. “What restorative circles and the restorative process do is allow students to be reflective of their behavior, to get the skills necessary to implement change in those behaviors going forward.”
Districts committing to restorative justice have shown good results
Kansas City Schools’ discipline overhaul started six years ago, when two teachers, Reginald Berry and Sarah Eblen, took it upon themselves to fund their own restorative justice training.
“The discipline practices the school was using just didn’t feel right to us,” Eblen said. “They kept taking our kids when we wanted to keep them. So we would say, ‘we’re really worried about this kid’ and they would get suspended for two days.”
They saw immediate results after initiating restorative circles and other initiatives for two 8th grade classrooms at Southeast High School. The students had 12 percent higher attendance than the rest of the school, and about 20 percent fewer discipline incidents, Eblen said.
Berry stopped teaching and focused on training others interested in becoming restorative justice coordinators, and Eblen joined him a year later. They have now trained 12 other teachers in the district and hope to place one coordinator dedicated to this work in each of the 35 public schools in Kansas City in the next three years.
“A lot of the schools came back and they came back in [restorative justice] circles,” Berry said. “They came back working on building up their community, because we’ve been apart for so long. And I think that’s what helped out.”
“You can’t do conflict resolution work without a community building, because you’re holding [the students] accountable to the community,” Eblen added. “So you have to build that community first.”
The district uses three tools to implement its restorative strategy: restorative justice circles, restorative conferences, and mediations.
Restorative circles allow students and staff to come together and discuss student behavior issues and find solutions; restorative conferences try to identify who was harmed and how to make it right; and mediations are based on conflict resolution between two or more parties involved in the issue.
The entire district’s staff is trained in addressing conflicts with questions such as “what happened, who was harmed, and how do we make it right?” Eblen said. Support circles are also available for students to build community, separate from conflict resolution circles.
Racial inequities in discipline still need addressing
Racial disparities in school discipline data have long shown that Black and Latinx students, economically disadvantaged students, and those with disabilities are suspended at higher rates than most others. That hasn’t changed much today, even with the overall reduction in suspensions.
“What we’re seeing with a lot of the programs, such as restorative justice, is that it does not differentially benefit the students who are bearing the burden of school discipline,” Welsh said.
“Oftentimes there’s evidence that these programs actually benefit white students more than Black students. So we’d have a reduction in the rates, we might move from 8 [percent] to 5 percent overall as a district or state, but Black students are still being suspended at higher rates than their white counterparts.”
The Kansas City school system has also seen this racial disparity in discipline, especially when comparing the predominantly Black student body to statewide data that includes discipline rates for white students, Berry said.
The district has been trying to address this by creating affinity spaces based on race, gender, sexuality or intersectional groups. “This way, [students] can connect, share concerns, advocate for themselves and resolve conflicts,” he said.
“We’re up against 100 years of bad education practices, especially discipline practices,” Eblen said. “So, we have to build systems that support those people on the ground, or they burn out so quick.”
Coverage of race, opportunity, and equity is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the December 07, 2022 edition of Education Week as Here’s How the Pandemic Changed School Discipline