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I’m here for restorative justice practices until your son punches my kid at school

Ask me what I think about school discipline and I will give you an answer born out of my time steeped in education tea. A decade ago I campaigned for school board saying I thought children should have safe, orderly, […]

Ask me what I think about school discipline and I will give you an answer born out of my time steeped in education tea.

A decade ago I campaigned for school board saying I thought children should have safe, orderly, and rigorous schools that prepare them for a good life. When asked by parents about student suspensions I said “the number of school suspensions should be exactly equal to the number of suspendable offenses committed. No more, no less.”

I thought it was a clever way of saying the consequences for unacceptable behavior in schools should be reasonable but fixed.

Worried about my dogmatism, district leaders privately offered me data sessions that showed suspensions were being used as a management tool to exclude specific groups of children from classrooms for vague reasons like “defiance,” and the application of discipline rules varied by the race of the teacher and the student. The pattern was detectable enough that we were at-risk of civil rights litigation.

That complicated things, and, so, I did what politicians do, I evolved.

Yes, I started out with the old school belief that strong discipline is the first ingredient of successful schools, but I came to see the contours and nuances of the issue, to the point where I could easily be mistaken for a liberal (I am not).

Now, I have a confession.

The best way to explain my dilemma is to use a crude frame and say I’ve learned there are different types of sh*t in this world. There’s SIS, which is about the sh*t I say.

There is SID, or shit I do.

And, most mysterious of all sh*t types, there is the SIT, or sh*t I think.

When it comes to discipline in public schools the SIS no longer matching the SIT.

I talk a good game about equity in education, the need to reduce out-of-school suspensions, and the civil rights of students who are pushed out of school for bad behavior. I cite the standard studies that people like me (those who don’t speak academia Greek) understand, and I sternly push back on the lesser people who fail to be moved by the power of my citation generator.

Dare you speak incorrectly about these issues I might Tweet at you all manner of stench until you mute me.

“Harsh school discipline is a manifestation of systemic racism in state-run education.”

That’s the SIS.

The SIT is this: all that social justice and restorative justice drum beating may resonate in my power-to-the-people soul, but, let’s have some honesty here, my declared values face a gladiator battle against the reality I see on the ground.

To be specific, one of my sons is a daily witness to minor and major forms of bullying between races and classes of students in his new school. Some of it amounts to the kids-will-be-kids variety of abuse like relentlessly making fun of ears or nose sizes or other immutable characteristics.

Other times its nuisance crimes like having his personal property purposefully broken by other people’s children.

And, too often for my comfort, it is the threat of violence or actual violence.

In most of those cases, I give my kids all the bad advice I was given back in the era of disco.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

“Never start a fight, but always finish one.”

“If you feel you’re going to lose a fight, make sure your opponent gets so many scars they never want to try you again.”

And, most famously, “respect everyone, but if they put their hands on you punch them in the throat.”

Luckily I’m married and my wife offers our kids responsible strategies to use when they encounter trouble at school.

The fact that we need to focus so intently on working with our kids on navigating don’t wild school environments where adults have too little control is a sign that has “exit” written all over it.

But, it gets worse. My elementary school-age daughter reports to us she has been punched has had her hair pulled, and was spit on by a boy in her class.

Playtime is over.

This is where the SIS transforms into the SIT and SID.

We emailed our daughter’s teacher who responded with a rather long reply detailing all the wonderful things she does to keep our children safe.

Wonderful things that still allow for punching, hair pulling, and the involuntary exchange of fluids.

Unsatisfied with that response, we escalated the problem to the principal which resulted in a meeting with the school’s behavior specialist who could only offer a word salad of education speak, none of which acknowledged the impermissibility of peer violence in our daughter’s classroom.

At that point, I’m morally, politically, and spiritually conflicted.

All of the aggravating statements right-wingers say come into focus at a moment like this.

“While you’re focusing on the minority of misbehaving students, what about the rights of behaving students who deserve an education”?

It makes sense. What about the students in my daughters class who have constant disruptions from the same few students, some who require multiple adults to drag them from the classroom?

The stock progressive answers seem to fail here.

No, the teachers won’t offer lessons so engaging that it will infatuate the student who throws scissors, overturns desks, constantly interrupts, and menaces his classmates.

No, the fact that suspension or exclusion will not work out well for the scissor thrower, desk overturner, interrupter, and menace does not override the 25 other students’ sense of safety and order in that classroom.

And, no, many children prone to poor behavior are not miraculously turned around by incessant prompts about their good or bad choices.

Still, I’m torn because I know students with self-regulation challenges aren’t “bad” or disposable. They are not an afterthought. They have unsurpassable worth. We know there is a lot going on in the lives of children that adults don’t see. When they misbehave we only see the outward manifestations, the acting out, the behavioral calls for help from little people attempting to comprehend bad circumstances.

So, when my conservative cousins go so far as to say student discipline is the instigator of out-of-control schools (or worse), I think their case forgets the number of school-based, administrative factors that make some environments safer than others even when they have similar populations.

And, I think they’re suspiciously ignorant of the ways race and class determine the punishments and solutions for too many students.

The liberals need some feedback too. They will have a hard time selling their portfolio of peer-reviewed research about the horrors of high behavioral expectations in schools if it means parents like me must subject our daughters and sons to repeated breaches of their personal space and right to safety and property.

The truth as I see it is somewhere in the middle. Restorative justice programs can change discipline outcomes, but only if they are implemented well and tweaked until they produce the desired result. Yet, time and experience have proven to me that anything that requires competence in implementation is doomed in the majority of school districts. My child can’t wait for you to get your staff trained, evaluated, and monitored enough to know whether or not your talking circles and justice rooms are helping students act human.

This isn’t me speaking. Of course not. This is just me thinking, privately, what people think as they slowly peel away from public schools. In the process, they profess values we all should profess, but that doesn’t stop them from quietly acting upon the discordant things they think.

My kid isn’t safe is one mammoth and motivating thing to think.

And, for the record, shaming us won’t work in this case because – speaking for me and mine – there isn’t enough shame in the world for me to sacrifice the safety and potential of my children.

But that’s just me.

Citizen Stewart

Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

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  • December 13, 2018 at 6:47 pm

    ,The title of your post reminds me of reactions of parents or school staff to violent behavior – a get tough , zero tolerance, punitive and quick fix approach to solving complex problems. Instead of looking at ” behaviors ” , we can look at ” unsolved problems and expectations and look for interventions that solve problems and build community. Behaviors tell us that the kid ” looks bad in certain situations and the spectrum of looking bad is large , but the problem is the same .If we use discipline- rewards, punishments and consequences , we still have an unsolved problem – we want kids to have the skills to behave and react in a flexible , adaptable and caring way and not simply because of a threat or a reward. We also want to help the bully or the kid that hit – punishment is not therapeutic, it is giving up on the kid. The American zero tolerance to violence is schools has made things worse. When schools move towards a Restorative practices and Collaborative problem solving environment , Alfie Kohn suggests – Go slow and get the kids on board , it is a collaborative process. When there are problems in a school , short term solutions which may work in the short term , but get in the way of long term solutions. Instead we should be looking at how to improve our Restorative and Collaborative problem solving practices , and the commitment of students to a caring community – see http://www.lostatschool.org/answers/index.htm
    Bullying and other violent acts are less likely to happen in a school that feels like a caring community, a place where children experience a sense of connection to one another and to adults, a place where they come to think in the plural and feel a sense of belonging.

  • December 13, 2018 at 7:41 pm

    Amen Chris. Amen. Police called to my daughter’s school yesterday to separate two female HS students having an “exchange of views”

    Principal talks and talks of justice and behavior. My daughter (13) wonders if going to HS means having to duck fights.

  • […] This was originally published by Citizen Stewart on his blog page. […]

  • December 15, 2018 at 1:55 pm

    It is easy for Restorative Justice to be poorly implemented, as seen when school leaders institute alternative punishments and consequences prior to training the staff and doing the work of creating strong relationships. To make matters worse, the crucial step of making amends is often neglected. The result is a disservice to everyone–hurtful behavior continues and worsens.

    • December 15, 2018 at 5:04 pm

      I agree – Too many schools see it as a “reaction” to bad behavior rather than a whole school approach to community building. They end up doing RJ in name only. RJ practices ( and Collaborative problem solving to address the underlying problems as lagging skills, cognitive and trust issues ) doesn’t work if there’s another way waiting in the wings. It’s about leadership & ethos & a way of being. Not a behaviour management policy.. Also • Would those agree to the title of the post if the kids involved were both your children – ” I’m here for restorative justice practices until MY son punches MY daughter at school and prefer my kid suffering an imposed consequence . Accountability is making a change from the inside, engaging in the autonomous way in the moral act of restitution , making amends and going forward with a new commitment to the community of cooperative learners

  • December 17, 2018 at 5:06 pm

    I have seen Restorative Justice at work in a school where it does reduce challenging behaviors. But it comes at a cost — lots and lots of instructional time lost to peace circles, individual mediation, etc. The cost is paid by the students who do not misbehave, and to some extent by the students who do — why are we assuming that only a therapeutic approach to behavior management skills can work? Is it true that every child who misbehaves is reacting to traumatic situations outside the school environment? why were students mostly able to control their behavior in past generations, including children from serious deprivation?

    If students do need a therapeutic approach, let’s provide it, but not in classrooms.

  • December 19, 2018 at 5:51 am

    Thank you for this candid article. My own daughter was bullied for almost two years in a school replete with all the “right” education-speak to the point where the trauma compelled her to change her first name. In my opinion, you really hit the nail on the head and inspired this article “on the precarious balance between the rights of disruptive pupils to develop academically and personally and their classmates’ right to not get punched in the face.” https://goo.gl/wJ9Ucz . I actually took the liberty of quoting you, with reference, of course. (Hint: Allan Katz’s “cooperative learners” above).

  • December 28, 2018 at 2:58 pm

    Thank you so much for explaining the modern public school dilemma so well and honestly revealing the tug of war between conservative and liberal visions. I’ve often thought that only a demi-god teacher could do a great job with a regular educational classroom with multiple children with emotional and behavioral and cognitive challenges. As a former teacher myself, I know I wouldn’t succeed with the challenging settings I hear of more and more from teachers these days.

    There’s a tipping point in the numbers of the classroom beyond which everyone suffers (especially the teacher!). And we need new, creative solutions for children who need more TLC. I don’t know the answers to that. But the answers won’t come until we’re honest about the challenges our schools are facing…and people of varying ideologies consider the needs of ALL students.

    • December 28, 2018 at 3:14 pm
      Citizen Stewart

      Thank you so much Marnie for this thoughtful response. You’re absolutely right to say the ideological “tug of war” causes us all to suffer and prevents us from finding solutions.


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