In my decade in Chicago Public Schools as a social worker and currently as a behavioral health specialist, I’ve learned a great education goes beyond academics. Students can’t learn if they do not first feel physically and emotionally safe, and students facing trauma often express their pain by disengaging or misbehaving. But safe and inclusive schools doesn’t just happen, they are created!
As educators, it’s our responsibility to exercise our voice on behalf of our students and demand supports to create these welcoming school communities. That is exactly what my colleagues and I did when we met with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to ask her to commit to working with us to build these communities.
Historically, teachers have met misbehavior, such as classroom disruptions or fighting, with suspensions, in effect punishing the symptoms of trauma rather than addressing them directly. Millions of students are removed from classrooms each year for minor misbehavior, and research shows that over-disciplining of students of color and students with disabilities is rampant, feeding the school-to-prison pipeline.
That’s what gets me up every morning to do this work. Every day I help teachers use non-punitive measures to hold students accountable for their actions and address the root social-emotional causes of misbehavior instead of discriminatory discipline practices. For example, rather than suspend two students for fighting, we hold restorative conversations to uncover what led to the altercation, facilitate conversations to allow the students to make peace, and have them work on a project after school on alternatives to violence to solve disagreements.
Keeping students answerable to their actions with this type of “restorative justice” takes far more effort than issuing a suspension. But teachers know these strategies actually make a difference. In a recent survey of 1,000 teachers nationwide, educators prioritized positive behavior reinforcement (74 percent) and restorative practices (64 percent) to manage discipline, greatly preferring them to punitive and exclusionary measures, such as out-of-school suspensions (39 percent).
For my colleagues and I to take on this challenging work, we have relied on federal school discipline guidance that protects students’ civil rights and shares proven non-punitive strategies to make schools safer. But for the last few months, Secretary Betsy DeVos has been considering rescinding this guidance, which could bring progress on restorative justice to a standstill.
In response, hundreds of teachers and I created Educators for Excellence’s In Class, Not Cuffs campaign to support the guidance. We have written emails, op-eds, and testimony to support the guidance, leading to the Department of Education inviting six of us to meet with DeVos to share our perspectives in April.
So, after years defending students at home in Chicago, I realized the best way to help my kids would be to take the fight to D.C.
After a brief greeting, DeVos took a seat. We shared stories about how the disproportionality in student discipline—particularly when we’re talking about students of color or students with special needs—has played out in our classrooms. We explained why we need strategies that allow us to work with students on their behavior, not against them. These are strategies that develop skills in conflict resolution, help them cope with traumas they’ve experienced, and help them repair and rebuild relationships.
But in spite of this chorus of educators speaking up in favor of the guidance, it still looks to be in jeopardy. Our students need every educator to speak up on behalf of their students to ensure DeVos hears our support for restorative justice.