Restoring Order

A new disciplinary method is keeping kids in school with a solution that sounds startlingly simple: talking it out.

Restorative Justice in Schools

Picture this: 10-year-old Ben trips his classmate. In most schools, he faces two punishments, detention or suspension. In either case, he is excluded from his classroom and acts differently next time. That’s just how discipline works, right?

Wrong. At least that’s what the Council of State Governments Justice Center claimed in a scathing 2011 report. The widely cited study found that when students are suspended or expelled, they become significantly more likely to repeat a grade, drop out, or end up in the justice system. These findings were deeply troubling to education researchers, because 60 percent of middle and high school students in Texas face suspension or expulsion at least once.

The study also bolstered evidence against the effectiveness of the popular zero-tolerance policy. Under this policy, African-American students are 31 percent more likely to be punished than other students, and all punished students are more likely to encounter the criminal justice system. Although legislatures are attempting to curb these numbers, teachers still aren’t given the tools to manage their classrooms with fewer suspensions and expulsions. It’s what Marilyn Armour calls “a perfect storm.”

“I think schools are very hungry for a different model,” she says. Armour is a UT social work professor, and with a recent grant from the Texas Education Agency, she is offering schools what might just be the solution they’re looking for. It’s called restorative discipline.

“Restorative discipline is about what we call meaningful accountability agreements,” Armour says. Under this model, Ben might be asked to sit down with his classmate and their teacher for an apology and a conversation to repair the relationship. Meanwhile, all of the school’s students participate in regular “talking circles,” in which they discuss important issues in their lives and communities. So restorative discipline isn’t a program just for “bad kids” like Ben, Armour says. It’s a program for the entire school community—students, teachers, and administrators alike.

It may sound suspiciously warm and fuzzy, but the method yields real results. Armour cites Ralph J. Bunche Academy in Oakland, an alternative high school for students with disciplinary problems. “In the last two years,” she says, “they haven’t had a single fight, a single suspension, and all the kids have graduated.”

Restorative discipline isn’t new—it’s existed in some schools for as long as 20 years—but it was introduced in Texas only three years ago. In 2012, San Antonio’s Ed White Middle School was issued an “Improvement Required” designation from the state. By 2014, the school received four stars of distinction for its standardized test scores, and when compared to demographically similar schools, it was the second-most improved.

While Armour doesn’t claim that restorative discipline is the only cause of Ed White’s academic achievements, she does believe the method has the potential to turn a school around. Thanks to her grant, Armour will help more schools like Ralph Bunche and Ed White make significant changes to their social and academic environments.

Most importantly, Armour believes that restorative discipline benefits students into their adult lives. “I think that at a more basic level it results in a population that knows something about how to be accountable to how they impact other people,” she says. “It’s about building relationships and about building caring relationships.”

Educators and administrators take part in a Restorative Justice training session at Lakeview Elementary School auditorium in Oakland, California.

Photo by Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images.


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