New York City's students are no strangers to traditional discipline policies. In the 2015-2016 school year, there were 23,000 suspensions. This reflects a sharp decline from the previous year, which saw 29,000 suspensions, thanks in part to a city-wide effort to reduce the use of harsh discipline with the City's 1.1 million public school students. Rates of exclusionary discipline (discipline that removes a student from the classroom) have been high enough in recent years to prompt educators to seek alternative discipline strategies.
One strategy that’s been sweeping the nation is restorative justice, a practice that originated as a community-based justice reform for criminal offenses, but has since trickled down into the educational system. Restorative justice is built upon the fundamental assumption that a school building is a community, and all members of that community should be expected to participate. It’s already been implemented with integrity in the Oakland, California public schools, and is potentially a great resource about which all teachers and families should be aware.
Restorative justice is an alternative to traditional discipline strategies because it replaces things like suspensions and being barred from team sports with an ongoing collaborative problem solving process that requires students to generate their own way of righting their wrongs. The transition to restorative justice starts by building a community. This difficult process depends on the availability of training for faculty as well as teacher and student buy-in. Changing the culture of a school takes time, but one of the most interesting and exciting parts of the process is the talking circle. This activity is an integral piece of restorative justice, but it shows promise as a tool for any educator to use to help bring a class of students closer together, and it also conjures up the types of activities used in family therapy sessions.
During a talking circle, students are able to speak without interruption, often through the use of a squish ball or other object that designates the present speaker. The time spent in circles is meant to help students get to know one another and understand why they do what they do. They are typically implemented as a form of mediation between students in conflict – to build empathy and allow students to find out the emotional matters underlying their peers’ behavior – but circles can be formed at any time, not just after a conflict has occurred. Stepping back from academics and opening the floor to student voices sets the community up for ongoing success. It’s a lot harder to enter a conflict with someone you’ve had the opportunity to get to know on a deep level. Talking circles, both as a prevention of and in response to behavioral issues or conflicts, help build reciprocal relationships wherein students feel protected and will, in return, work to protect the community they’re a part of.
Restorative justice was a direct response to issues like zero tolerance policies, school drop-out, and racial disparities in the use of harsh discipline. Research has shown promising results in high-need areas, but the principles of restorative justice and building a classroom community are important in all types of settings. By teaching kids early on how to interact with others they may not always want to get along with, maybe they’ll carry that empathy with them into adulthood and use it to feel connected to our beautifully diverse city, which is home to 8.5 million people from at least 190 countries.
For more information about restorative justice and discipline reform in NYC public schools, check out the following resources and articles:
- An article in The New York Times from September 2016
- A review of programs throughout the country, from the George Lucas Educational Foundation
- The announcement from the NYC Mayor's Office of initiatives to make schools fairer and safer
- Resources from the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation
- A book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin, that lays out a step-by-step framework for building a classroom community. His writing is directed at educators in high-need areas, but his philosophy and methods are far-reaching.