The Need for a Discipline Change in K-12 Public Schools

February 18, 2020

Think about it.  How has the approach to discipline in K-12 public schools changed?  Not much.  If you had knowledge of another person’s experiences —  what they see, what they hear, and/or what they feel, would it change the way you would respond to this individual?  If I had to guess, it would.  Behaviors are learned things, good or bad.  Children aren’t born destined to be good or bad.  They see.  They imitate.  They do what they have LEARNED!  Since all learning is social by nature, strong relationships fostered by restorative practices play a powerful gatekeeping role.

As a process, not a program, enables educators and an entire learning community to understand each student’s individual needs in order to create a more equitable experience and set of outcomes.

When a child acts out, it is a symptom of a problem, not the root cause.  Challenges in school and outside of school within their communities and/or at homes could be the root causes.  Students in this day and age come to school with much more “baggage” than ever before.

Expulsions and suspensions don’t address the root problem AT ALL!!  Those solutions sometimes even make it worse.  This is the lazy way to deal with problem behaviors in school because it is easy to put kids out of school but it is also very risky.  Have you ever had to speak at a student’s funeral – a student on Out of School Suspension because of accumulated tardies or any other reason?  I have. I’ll tell you, other than burying my mother three years ago, it was the most gut-wrenching thing I have ever had to endure.  How difficult do you think that would be for you?  Take a few minutes to let that sink in.

Putting kids out of school perpetuates the “school to prison pipeline” that is so prevalent in our society today; especially for students of color.  Did you know that 95% of school suspensions are for non-violent offenses?  This includes offenses such as tardy accumulations, profanity and dress code violations.  This tells the student “you are a problem.”

When it happens over and over, the student begins to believe it.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Suspensions and expulsions increase the rate of high school dropouts.  Did you know that high school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to become incarcerated and that increases with students of color? Students sent to juvenile detention centers are 67% more likely to return to jail by the age of 25. Zero-tolerance policies are not fair and equitable either, nor do they work.  Students of color, in particular black and Latino students, make up 29% of the student population in the United States.  Did you know that 70% of in-school arrests or referrals to law enforcement are black or Latino? Did you know that 32% of students sent to juvenile justice facilities are those with special needs?

What schools should be doing?

Schools need to shift away from traditional disciplinary practices and “command and control” school cultures and begin to embrace intentional community, co-created values, and accountability for upholding shared ideals. Restorative Practice is just what is needed in our public schools today. Heck, right now!

Restorative Practice shifts the mindset from punishment to healing. It empowers the student and creates a much stronger school community and culture.  It helps the student understand that their actions have a far greater impact than they can ever imagine. Restorative Practice asks “What harm was caused by the offense?” and “How can we heal that harm?”  It prioritizes keeping more students of color, students from low-income families, and students from challenging circumstances enrolled, moving toward graduation, and out of the school to prison pipeline. We work under the assumption that all students are worthy and deserving.

What does Restorative Practice look like in a classroom? It looks like students communicating and collaborating in “talking circles” where they honor the power distributed to them and sharing that power between adults and their peers. Students engage in a form of self-governance as part of their shared identity in their school community. This not only builds an equitable and productive community but also helps students master much needed social and emotional skills. Students listen with empathy; positively communicate needs; honor and embrace differences in opinion, perspective, and experience; and take responsibility for personal feelings and actions. In schools that use restorative practice, there is regular engagement in ongoing dialogue and reflection where students are also building leadership, facilitation, and critical thinking skills.

What does Restorative Practice look like school-wide?  A trained peer jury that asks open/ended questions to determine the needs of the victim and the offender so the harm can be repaired and the relationship built or rebuilt.   The goal of a peer jury is to ensure accountability, increase community, increase safety, and develop emotion and social competence.  It truly "takes a village to raise a child."  You may see "Peace Centers" in schools where Restorative Practice is used.  Students use these centers to share emotions and issues that they would normally handle in a violent or aggressive manner.  The center provides an avenue for the student to talk things out with adults and their peers.

Using this approach helps to uncover underlying reasons for students’ hurtful behavior or to nurture the desires with which they are born:  the desire to treat others with care and respect. Remember, a behavior is learned, but can also be re-taught!!!   Restorative Practices create a safe space to model how we all make mistakes, how mistakes can be healed and overcome, and how to practice empathy for and with one another.

Empathy, respect, honesty, acceptance, responsibility, and accountability is what Restorative Practice is all about.  It provides avenues for schools to effectively address behavior and nurtures a supportive environment that can improve learning. It improves safety by preventing future harm. But the icing on the cake is that it offers alternatives to suspension and expulsion and with students in class more, test scores rise!

 The evidence against exclusive discipline is overwhelming. It simply does not work to correct the behavior but contributes to the systemic biases that perpetuate the further isolation and alienation of the very students who need support to learn skills for coping and regulating their emotions the most. Yet, even with mounting evidence for this practice, most public schools still use punitive, exclusionary discipline as a "the go to" strategy or addressing perceived student misconduct.

If we ignore the discipline gap, we will be unable to close the achievement gap.

Kimberly Bone, NBCT

Kim is a graduate of the University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC where she earned her BS in Information Technology (December 1986 and her M.Ed in Secondary Business Education (August 1989). Originally from Winnsboro, SC, Kim now lives at Surfside Beach, SC. She teaches at The Horry County Education Center (HCEC) which is the alternative school for Horry County Schools. Prior to HCEC, Kim taught at Blythewood High School in Richland School District Two, Blythewood, SC, from 2005 until 2018. Kim teaches at risk students and has since 2003 when she began her teaching career. Prior to teaching, she was the Director of Information Technology at the University of South Carolina College for Nursing from October of 1989 until July of 2003. She has two sons, Taylor (28) and Avery (24). She also has two fur babies, Marbley (a Catahoula) and Cooper (a Yorkie Poo) which are both rescues. Kim is an avid Gamecock and enjoys sports, being outdoors (especially on the beach), and reading. In her “spare” time you can find her walking her dogs on the beach or singing Karoake at Neal and Pam’s in Surfside Beach, SC.