During my second year in the classroom, I had a student I’ll call Dylan. He was aggressive, disinterested and disrespectful. He was also malnourished, homeless and hated by his mother.
Yet our school discipline decisions did not take the latter into enough consideration. On the one hand, we attempted to appease Dylan with Pop-Tarts (surely a boy who never had enough food would behave for a snack!). On the other hand, there were hardline expectations for what Dylan should and shouldn’t get away with (after all, a boy in third grade knows right from wrong!).
Neither extreme effectively addressed the root of Dylan’s behavior. So he continued to mouth off, kick desks, storm out of the room and get physical with his peers, my co-teacher, me, and anyone else he felt disrespected him.
Schools are children’s first communities. They model the rules, expectations and consequences of society. Suspensions, expulsions and unofficial “go-home-early-you’re-struggling” days—all of which were part of Dylan’s daily existence—exclude students from their learning communities without intent to support, rehabilitate or prepare for reentry. When we, through exclusionary discipline and culturally-ignorant practices, punish students for trauma-induced behaviors and coping mechanisms, we teach them that their circumstances are not worth consideration.
We teach them that they are not worth our investment.
Dylan’s constant disruption outpaced our ability to complete discipline referrals. When a referral did make it in, Dylan was either removed from the classroom and made to sit elsewhere (doing nothing productive) or left inside the classroom where students around him struggled to stay on task.
Dylan knew there were no real consequences for his actions. He wanted out of the classroom and the building and expressed no concern for who or what he affected. He was used to the world showing little concern for him. I imagine he thought he was just returning the favor.
Our choice to exclude is also too often a choice to funnel students into the juvenile justice system. In Chicago Public Schools, where I teach, over 17 percent of juvenile arrests in 2013-2014 were made inside a public school building.
Moreover, suspensions increase the likelihood that a student will drop out. In the United States, there is nearly a 70 percent chance that an African-American man without a high school diploma will be imprisoned by his mid-30s.
Restorative Justice Can Help
As a new teacher, I had little understanding of restorative justice, and I wish I’d had a deeper knowledge of it when Dylan was my student.
Restorative justice is a framework for thinking about wrongdoing that centers on each participant’s humanity. Having worked with many students like Dylan since then, I believe that if children do not experience the power and importance of restorative justice as students, they will enter society as unforgiving citizens and unapologetic offenders.
Children’s capacity for forgiveness and consideration is unbelievably deep. When they enter our classrooms, we either fan these flames or snuff them out. Rather than criminalize behaviors, restorative justice centers on relationships. It is not consequence-free. Instead, it fosters cooperative communities that bring the harmed and the wrongdoer into conversation to repair the harm.
Here is how it works: When a student pushes a peer out of boredom or laughs at a child who has been emotionally affected by a lesson, I remove him from the situation. He has an opportunity to reflect on his attitude and actions in the context of our previously agreed-upon community values.
When he is ready, we discuss the incident and he is able to engage with the person he hurt and offended. Both students listen, speak and agree on terms to move forward. This mindset shift—paired with adequate resources, training, time and physical space—produce healthier learning environments with more positive short- and long-term consequences.
Over the course of the year, Dylan trusted and listened to one person consistently: a third-grade classmate named Tyler. Tyler approached Dylan in a way that few adults in our school had the patience to do, with an open heart and an intent to understand. It was a case of restorative justice working in an everyday, personal relationship.
Dylan was gone by the end of the school year. I can only hope that the learning community he is a part of now recognizes him as a hurt child and not a criminal. I hope it’s not too late to save him. If we don’t, we willingly condemn him to a life of isolation and probable incarceration. And he deserves better.