Center for Educational Excellence
April 24, 2023
In 2014, the Obama Administration felt that there was discrimination in the way in which discipline was applied in our nation’s public schools and felt that this disproportionately impacted students of color and students with disabilities.
Obama’s U.S. Secretary of Education released a "Dear Colleague" policy letter recommending that all states adopt a new discipline practice called “restorative justice” to replace traditional discipline such as detentions and suspensions. The “restorative justice practices” involve student mediated conflict resolution and “healing circles” and consider a student's disabilities and race when determining the appropriate punishment for bad behavior.
Research has found that teachers and administrators alike exhibit little or no racial bias and that the higher incidence of black student infractions is instead due to single-parent families, trauma, poverty, and crime.
While a “Dear Colleague” policy letter is not legally binding, many states - including Delaware - rushed to adopt the new “restorative justice” practices as their preferred method of discipline because if they did not comply “they could be found guilty of a civil rights violation and therefore potentially lose federal funding."
Bad Behavior Deserves Accountability and Consequences
Restorative justice provides neither accountability nor consequences. Although it may be helpful in some cases in which insight is needed, it is useless in dealing with students who are repeat offenders. Conducting group therapy is difficult for the best-trained psychologist, so why would we expect an untrained teacher to be able to lead therapy groups with students?
Today, our students are reaping the consequences of restorative justice. Many are afraid of going to school and of walking from one class to another because they fear being bullied or assaulted. Teachers and principals are also experiencing extreme stress and considering leaving the profession due to the violence and disrespect they are facing in their classrooms. Some teachers report that they have some classes where little education takes place because most of the class time is spent dealing with discipline issues.
As we saw from Delaware’s results on the 2022 Nation’s Report Card, our state had the largest decrease in test scores between 2019 and 2022 and is now 4th from the bottom when compared with all 50 states. The time spent dealing with behavioral issues and focusing on non-academic topics substantially reduces the amount of learning in our schools. This impact is even greater for minority students and students with special needs. They achieve the lowest scores on state-mandated testing. We have 25 schools in Delaware with single-digit proficiency scores on either the math or English Language Arts state assessment. Twenty-one of these poorly performing schools are in the city of Wilmington.
Combining Traditional Discipline with Restorative Practices
I propose combining traditional discipline with counseling and support to let our students know that despite their disabilities or life circumstances, they can learn to behave in school. When teachers demand higher standards, students rise to those expectations with improved performance.
Incorporating traditional discipline back into our schools will make the school day much less stressful for students and teachers. It would lessen truancy and decrease the number of teachers quitting. It would also help increase the number of new teachers entering the field because they would not hear horror stories about the current chaos happening in the classrooms.
Students who are repeat offenders require more than a “restorative circle” to drive home the point that their behavior is unacceptable and to ensure that it stops. Discussions can help process what led to a conflict, but eliminating consequences such as detentions can escalate bad behavior or violence seen in many of our schools today.
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