Restorative Justice Approaches to School Discipline

shutterstock_208124332We’ve all seen the video of the teenage girl in the South Carolina school being dragged out of her seat by a school resource officer –and being put at a high risk of physical harm–for using a cell phone and not complying with her teacher and the officer. But the altercation tells only part of the story, the reactions of the others in the room tell another. Students simply sat there as if it was a normal day in their school or as if they were fearful of the officer themselves. The teacher had little to no reaction either. Or you may have read today’s story about a school resource officer in Oklahoma City punching a student who made him feel threatened in the face. This is not the atmosphere we want to create in our schools.

These situations are a reflection of zero tolerance type discipline practices and the culture of violence we are fostering in our school systems.

A school is supposed to be a safe place for youth to learn and grow. Students, school staff, and parents all play key roles in creating that space. The learning and growing process in school is beyond math, science, and English skills. By being in a large environment of people with varying backgrounds and personalities, youth learn behavioral skills, soft skills, and conflict resolution in schools too.

Teenagers often go through a stage of rebellion and some teens have deeper rooted issues that affect their behavior like self-esteem struggles, bullying, home life stress, living in poverty, being in the foster care system, etc. It is important to hold youth accountable in a way that will change behaviors without displaying violence as the choice of discipline. Adults, especially school resource officers, have to display the behaviors we want our students to model.

If we want to prevent these situations, mutual respect between law enforcement and youth of color must be fostered in and out of schools. We need students to see law enforcement as people who are there to protect and help them. We don’t need students feeling afraid or distrusting our law enforcement officers.

This can happen by taking restorative justice approaches to school discipline. Today we are too quick to criminalize students instead of helping youth work through their problems. A restorative justice approach requires more counselors and peace leaders who are trained to help youth work through their problems. Supports are needed for teachers so that they don’t have to devote their classroom time for discipline. The nonprofit group Rethinking Schools reminds us that this doesn’t happen in the margins. Restorative justice involves community building inside and outside of schools and creating an environment that “healing harm rather than continuing a cycle of crime and punishment.” Oklahoma City Public School District has even started a discipline intervention training for their personnel using Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS). PBIS is part of the Arkansas Department of Education’s State Personnel Development Grant Plan as well.

There’s research, guides and even information from the U.S. Department of Education out there to give context of what restorative justice approaches to school discipline  look like. Changing how we discipline students can help change school climate, reduce instances of violence in schools, and make school a safer place for both youth and adults.