The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Dealing with “Crime and Punishment” in Today’s Schools

on October 10, 2016

Now that most readers have recovered from reading my piece about corporal punishment, which is still legal in schools in 21 states, I will recount some other practices for punishing kids’ misbehavior that can be just as damaging. Those practices, created under the concept of “Zero tolerance” can be anything from after school detention to removal of student privileges or even long term suspension. The punishment for an action that includes breaking the law may also include criminal charges.

On the other side of the coin, I will describe a very different school practice called “Restorative Justice,” which seeks to replace student punishment with explanation, remorse and repair from an offender, and understanding and forgiveness from those who were harmed.

My sources of information are two recent articles from the New York Times, one published on September 9th of this year and the other on October 2nd. Although those articles focus on happenings in New York City schools, similar things may also be occurring in other cities and rural areas around the country.

The October 2nd article describes some of the severe punishments given to children for different types of offenses. The first example given is about a 15-year-old boy in Brooklyn who brought a loaded gun to school in his backpack early in this school year. For that action he was taken by police to their headquarters. Almost immediately, the city’s Department of Education issued a statement declaring “there is zero tolerance for weapons of any kind in schools”. Under that concept three million school children are now suspended from school around the country every year, and several thousand are arrested and charged with criminal actions.

Over the past 30 years “Zero Tolerance” has become the norm for public schools, including charters; at times punishing children for minor transgressions. For example, a 12 year old girl was arrested for doodling on her desk with a green marker and an autistic boy for kicking a trash can. Even though youth violence has declined sharply from its peak in the 1990s, Zero Tolerance practices continue in many schools. Some critics have referred to them as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Recently, however, attitudes toward severe punishment have begun to shift. Many schools all over the country are trying new approaches to resolve behavior problems. One practice that has drawn attention is “talking through” offenses with students rather than administering severe punishments. At a high school in Houston, Texas, the principal Bertie Simmons required two students who had forged a permission slip to write a paper about what they had done rather than being suspended. Mr. Simons said, “If you just treat people with kindness, it’s far better than being so punitive.“

Even New York City with 1.1 million students has moved away from harsh discipline. In the second half of 2015 suspensions went down by one third from the same period in the previous year. In addition, Mayor Bill de Blasio has suggested removing metal detectors from school buildings because many students feel they are “intrusive and denigrating.” Although that is not likely to happen, many school administrators are exploring tactics that will encourage better student behavior and eliminate the need for strong disciplinary actions.

The September 9th article focused on a particular strategy, called “Restorative Justice” that is being tried by schools in many different places. Specifically, it attempts to strengthen the connections between students and teachers by having them get together after a conflict has taken place and everyone has had time to cool down. The student offender and the offended teacher, student, or school official meet in a quiet place with a moderator and, perhaps, others who were present when the situation took place. They all sit in a circle and listen to each other in turn explain how a particular negative incident affected each of them.

The strategy aims to build basic human values such as community, empathy and responsibility. It attempts to strengthen the personal connections between offending students and their victims through personal discussions under safe and orderly conditions.  The hoped for goal is having the participants agree on reasonable consequences and better behavior in the future.

Although apologies are not demanded, they often emerge spontaneously; not only from students, but also from teachers or principals who now feel they over-reacted to the situation. A problem is not necessarily resolved in such a meeting, but it does seem to favorably affect future behavior on both sides because the people involved now understand each other better.

Unfortunately, the introduction of “Restorative Justice” does not run smoothly in many cases. Often, student misbehavior is so widespread and has been going on for so long, that teachers won’t consider any action that is not a form of punishment. Yet Schools using this strategy have experienced significant positive results: lowered suspension rates, higher graduation rates, and improved school atmospheres. In New York, for example, the Education Department is training its own faculty, and the Schools Chancellor, Carmen Fariña supports the strategy for all schools. Interest in using the practice has also spread to other cities, such as Denver, and Oakland, and San Francisco.

From my perspective, it looks like “Restorative Justice” requires a lot of time and a lot of training for both students and teachers. As the article reported, many teachers have chosen to transfer out of schools where it was being introduced. Clearly, the old ways of student behavior, teacher response, and school practices are firmly embedded in most schools. Teaching everyone on both sides to think and behave in more cooperative and empathetic ways is not a quick or easy task either. It can be done, but it is going to take time, less pressure on teachers to be “all things to all people”, and strong efforts to make all students believe that they are partners in the process of education, rather than its victims.

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