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Suspensions Don’t Teach

Restorative practices—an alternative to punitive justice—keep kids in school, where they can learn how their behavior affects others.

Students sit in a circle to mediate a difference as a teacher looks on.

The world of education is alive with buzzwords like innovation, inclusion, and mindfulness; another term gaining traction is restorative practices, also called restorative justice. Restorative practices are a burgeoning alternative to traditional punitive justice such as suspensions (both in school and out of school) and other exclusionary forms of discipline.

Many states are legislating a movement away from prescribed punitive justice for misbehavior in schools, and restorative practices are gaining in esteem as an evidence-based intervention that has proven successful when implemented correctly. Major school districts in San FranciscoDenver, and Houston are implementing restorative practices to combat inequalities in suspension and disciplinary referrals. These districts are finding that restorative practices, once understood, can be implemented with just a few simple steps.

A Worst-Case Scenario of Punitive Justice

Punitive justice is based on the consequences administered by our American justice system. When a student misbehaves at school they are sent to the office. After a generally brief investigation, a consequence that fits within a code of conduct is given. In the case of removal from class and suspension from school, the student is excluded from campus activities—including instruction.

When the duration of the consequence is over, the student is inserted back into the flow of school without learning any replacement skills or exactly how their behavior affects others. In fact, for kids without good parental support or whose parents work, that suspension can look more like a PlayStation vacation, thereby nullifying any negatives associated with getting in trouble at school.

Studies routinely show that students who are removed from school for misbehavior are more likely to end up at risk, eventually placed into alternative disciplinary schools, or worse. This is referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline and, while it’s a worst-case scenario, it is a grim reality for many students.

Restorative practices differ from punitive justice in that the ultimate goal is mediation rather than punishment. Students may still go to the office when misbehavior occurs, but the procedure is much different from an investigation followed by a consequence. Serious offenses will still accrue severe consequences, but the majority of offenses can be adequately handled with restorative practices.

As an elementary administrator, I dealt with all kinds of discipline issues that often accrued a consequence. I loathed suspending students from school because school is where the misbehavior occurred, and the replacement behavior needs to be learned and practiced in that same setting. In lieu of utilizing removal as a punishment, I strove to determine the cause of the conduct and look for solutions.

One very effective practice was to bring the conflicting students together and mediate a resolution. After asking for the students’ permission to mediate, we would have an open and safe discussion about the causes of actions and reactions and reach an understanding that was agreed upon by all parties. These agreements looked different based on the situation, but the process was always similar in that a discussion took place, grievances were safely aired, and an agreement for moving forward was achieved. Even though I didn’t know it initially, this is the foundation of restorative practices.

The Five Steps of Restorative Practices

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