GUEST COLUMN: A better disciplinary system makes better schools

Stitched within the complex fabric of our society is a thread of humanity. We cannot ignore the importance of or needlessly pull on this thread which is fundamental to our community’s wellbeing.

Schools are microcosms of their communities; thus, they need to move away from a narrow view of right/wrong and punishment/power, and adopt a pluralist approach to reconciling vast differences of values, beliefs and norms that arrive every day at their door. Doing so, schools can become a beacon of light for those who continue to operate in the dark.

Since arriving as the new principal at Gateway High School in the summer of 2019, we have steadily transformed the school’s disciplinary culture. For example, during a passing period last school year, a group of students were talking loudly to one another outside a teacher’s classroom. When the teacher addressed the students for using what he deemed “inappropriate language,” one of the students became upset and abruptly walked away. Instead of proceeding with a referral and punitive action, Gateway staff scheduled a restorative justice conversation. During the RJ, both the student and teacher apologized to each other for the misunderstanding, and no further disciplinary action was required.

This student’s experience helps explain how we meaningfully reduced disciplinary suspensions at Gateway High School. During the 2018-2019 school year, 13.3% of the student body at Gateway High School served at least one out-of-school suspension. Furthermore, 18.8% of those students were referred to law enforcement for their infraction.

Too much of present-day school discipline aims to get students to comply, rather than to help them learn. Restorative practices can help shift our focus away from punishment–which rarely works–to student growth, development and change. If punishment replaces the opportunity to teach and learn, systems become reliant on surveillance, the fear of punishment and expectations of compliance.

Changing the paradigm of discipline from student exclusion to student and staff inclusion was one of the first undertakings of our new leadership team for the 2019-2020 school year. Our purpose as educators is to grow and develop students; too often, however, students are rendered voiceless in the wake of conflict. We are quick to stigmatize their “inappropriate” behavior leaving students resentful for never being heard or understood. While a school is a microcosm of our larger society, it is the establishment that should embrace the practice of restorative justice.

The result of students staying in school is reflected in our on-track-to-graduate data. We saw significant gains across all grade levels, particularly at the 9th– and 10th-grade levels. Through the first three quarters of 2019-20, Gateway students served a total of 98 days for out-of-school suspension. That means students were in class and actively engaged in learning for 1,100 days more compared to the previous year.

So, how did we make such a drastic improvement? First, we encouraged our staff to rethink the purpose of student discipline. We focused on how positive student-staff relationships impact conflict resolution and prevention. An example is how one teacher handled multiple communication challenges with one of her students.

Over several class periods, the teacher struggled to engage the student. She called the student’s home several times to discuss what support was needed, but the student remained disengaged. The teacher decided she had no choice but to write a referral. The grade-level dean talked with the student and her

mother who both expressed difficulties with how the teacher presented class content. The student also felt the teacher refused to hear her concerns. The dean scheduled a restorative conversation where the student was able to voice her concerns and share insights about her individual learning style. After the RJ, the relationship and communication improved. The teacher later shared: “I had another great conversation with the student today. She came in REALLY upset…. she was crying. I talked with her outside the room and had a GREAT conversation with her.”

When a school’s disciplinary approach relies heavily on exclusionary actions, such as out-of-school suspension, students are deprived of learning opportunities. Exclusionary punishments remove a student from a positive learning environment, which often negatively affects their grades and involvement in positive social interactions with their peers and teachers.

Furthermore, punitive disciplinary actions fail to make schools safer, and they increase the likelihood of future disciplinary problems. If exclusionary policies fail to provide desirable outcomes for students, families and schools, then school systems must turn to inclusionary policies and practices to improve the learning environment and outcomes for all students.

A recent Gateway graduate said, “One thing about the Gateway High School community is the discipline. Students are given the opportunity to explain their side of the story before the consequences are decided. The restorative system ensures students get the opportunity to continue to achieve and be successful. I have seen many improvements in the school on students’ behaviors and actions.”

High rates of OSS negatively impact the entire school culture and the overall quality of student life. When students attend a school with a reputation for harsh punishment, they don’t feel like they are truly part of the school.

As we refine the process and practice of restorative justice, our first priority remains the establishment of positive staff relationships with all students. When students create additional opportunities for learning, we make sure the opportunities are inclusive instead of exclusive.

Ronald M. Fay is Gateway High School principal