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  • Writer's pictureMister V

4. School Suspensions Are Way Down - So Why Isn't Everyone Happy About It?

Updated: Sep 5, 2020

In this article:

  • Suspension statistics and pushback to discipline reform

  • The Social Discipline Window - 4 practitioner styles for people in authority

  • What makes a solution truly restorative? The Process, not the Outcome.

Suspensions Are Dramatically Down in NYC Schools

Suspensions in NYC public schools were down 20% from July 2019 to December 2019, compared to the same period a year earlier. They had also declined by 10% during the 2018-19 school year, bringing the total suspensions for the year to 50% of what they were in 2011; the exact numbers for every school can be found here. To clarify, we're talking about Out-of-School Suspensions, during which students are not eligible to attend school in their designated school buildings. Such a consequence is intended to be reserved for the most severe violations of a school's code of conduct. I am a staunch opponent of Out-of-School Suspensions. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Suspensions date back to decades-old Zero-Tolerance discipline policies that were initially aimed at preventing guns from being brought into schools (See Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994). From there, drug-free school zones were created and suspensions were added as a consequence. Eventually, schools adopted Zero-Tolerance to work for any infractions they saw fit, including non-violent demonstrations of "disrespect" or "insubordination." Thus, suspensions skyrocketed in our country and students have lost years of learning time over the last few decades.

  • The American Psychological Association found that Zero-Tolerance policies actually increase challenging behaviors and don't increase school safety. School suspension rates actually predict higher rates of misbehavior of students who have been suspended. Schools with higher suspension rates have lower climate ratings.

  • Suspensions hurt students academically. A Bloomberg-era policy to reduce suspensions actually boosted test scores in NYC.

  • A 2018 paper published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Education suggests that suspensions in NYC really do contribute to students passing fewer classes, increasing their risk of dropping out, and lowering the odds of graduating.

  • The detrimental impact of suspensions disproportionally affects black students and students with disabilities. Nearly 45% of NYC's suspensions last year went to black students, for instance, even though they represent about 26% of the student population. One of the chief missions of School Culture Solutions is to dismantle such disproportionality in school discipline. These key findings from the American Psychological Association contain information about rampant implicit bias in school discipline and the resulting school-to-prison pipeline; the document concludes with extensive references for those who wish to examine the research more closely.

Pushback Against Discipline Reform and the Limiting of Suspensions

If suspensions have such a deleterious effect on students' academic progress and on their sense of self-worth and social-emotional well-being, then everyone must be celebrating the dramatic decline in their usage, right? Surprisingly, wrong. In January 2020, while the NYC Principals Union, the CSA, engaged in contentious contract negotiations with the city, union representatives wrote an angry letter to Chancellor Richard Carranza in protest of recent school discipline reforms. Chalkbeat wrote a summary of the letter and outlined its key points. On one hand, the CSA had a legitimate gripe in stating that while they agree with the philosophical shift in discipline approaches away from punitive and exclusionary practices such as suspension and toward restorative practices, their staffs have not been adequately trained or consistently trained across schools. In fact, only 21% of principals surveyed said they were satisfied with discipline reforms. I comment on a style of leadership that makes demands without offering commensurate support in the video below. I don't blame the principals and the city's teachers for feeling unsupported in that regard. You can't just tell schools to "be restorative instead of suspending" and then not even model what that means for them.

On the other hand, this frustration has then led to the widespread misconception among principals and city educators that restorative justice is itself to blame for a perceived rise in misconduct and, according to CSA President Mark Cannizzaro, "leading some students to believe there are little or no consequences for disruptive, openly defiant, and even violent behavior.” We see very misleading articles, such as "In many city schools, Restorative Justice means no consequences for bad behavior." Let's be clear about something:

Restorative Justice NEVER means NO CONSEQUENCES for bad behavior.

The CSA's letter goes on to complain that principals have to seek central DOE sign-off for insubordination suspensions. Yes, we want you to actually build relationships with students, train your staff members on effective, yet empathetic, classroom management strategies, and not deprive students of the right to be inside the building because they were "insubordinate." This objection reflects a lack of understanding of the harmful effects of suspension and a lack of sensitivity to the disproportionate severity and length of consequences that Black and Latino students face compared to their white peers for the exact same behaviors. I know first hand that adopting restorative practices as a school leads to a stronger school community, a safer, more respectful school climate, and improved academic outcomes. We need to adequately train schools across the country in their implementation.

There's another really important part of this equation that restorative justice detractors are sorely missing. It has to do with the science behind restorative justice. It explains why restorative justice is an appropriate response to any infraction, no matter how severe.

The Social Discipline Window

Like all 5-year-olds, my daughter Tatiana has become increasingly manipulative in order to get what she wants. Recently, after I established clear terms for when she could access a new toy, she brought the toy to my wife and falsely said that I had asked my wife to open it for her. Of course, I was surprised to find her minutes later having the time of her life with her new toy. According to a concept known as the Social Discipline Window, there were four basic approaches that my wife and I could have taken in order to discipline Tatiana for lying and failing to abide by our initial agreement:

  1. Punish her, listing off consequences that she would experience such as delayed access to the toy, time-out, loss of playtime, etc.

  2. Offer her tons of love and support, hugging her and explaining that we were hurt by her actions and providing strategies she can use to exercise patience next time she's having trouble waiting for something.

  3. Ignore the incident altogether.

  4. Some sort of balance between #1 and #2 - probably the most effective approach.

Let's learn more by watching the following 4-minute video:

The 4 approaches to responding to Tatiana's indiscretion listed above would align with the Social Discipline Window in the following way:

  1. Punitive, doing things TO her.

  2. Permissive, doing things FOR her.

  3. Neglectful, not doing anything at all.

  4. Restorative, doing things WITH her.

In the Introduction to Restorative Practices Workshop, we spend a significant amount of time understanding the science behind the Social Discipline Window and how these four practitioner styles apply to classroom teaching, parenting, policing, managing employees or any scenario in which someone is in a position of authority. The bottom line is:

People are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things WITH them, rather than TO or FOR them.

Learning how to apply restorative practices in schools is learning how to balance control and support in order to do things WITH people. This is why in my earlier post introducing restorative practices, I emphasized that there is no menu of restorative consequences that perfectly match up with each and every behavioral infraction. If we really want students to learn from their mistakes, internalize the impact that their actions have had, and choose to modify their behavior moving forward, we must focus on the process that we use to guide students after they have made mistakes. From the Restorative Practices Handbook:

"A response that is restorative in one situation could be punitive or permissive in the next. Making a student clean a classroom is a common punishment. Cleaning a classroom might be perfect for a student who had already taken responsibility for making a mess of the classroom, felt bad, and wanted to make amends by helping to clean up the mess she caused. But the same punishment (or consequence) might make one student resentful and still another feel like they’d gotten off easy, particularly if the punishment were perceived as having nothing to do with the misbehavior that led to that consequence."

The nature of the process, not the outcome,

makes a response restorative or not.

Once I learned what it truly meant to be in the restorative "WITH box," I was able to apply a restorative process to any infraction, from writing graffiti on a desk to major physical altercations. We didn't focus on fairness, or giving everyone the exact same consequence for the same infraction; we focused on justice, or taking everyone through the same process to identify and meet the needs of all those involved. Restorative justice allowed us to meet the needs of those who were harmed and to produce real learning and reflection on the part of those who had done wrong, leading to lasting behavioral change. Shunning our students and relegating them to sit at home with no supervision for several days would not have produced those results, but would have produced the injurious results listed above.

Chances are, if you speak with a school leader who says,"We tried restorative practices. It doesn't work. Culture hasn't improved and the same kids keep doing the same bad things" -then the school has been veering too far into the TO box (punitive style) or the FOR box (permissive style). It takes patience, practice, and support from educators who are experienced in applying restorative practices in schools to learn how to consistently navigate to the WITH box. I am happy to coach school disciplinarians through a restorative process in response to an individual incident. However, I would strongly prefer to teach an entire staff how to respond restoratively to any harm or misbehavior. Please contact me to learn more.

P.S: A few readers asked, "So what did you guys do with Tatiana?" If I divulge the exact outcome, I myself will be guilty of emphasizing outcome over process. I'll simply say that we sat down with her and asked her a number of questions about what she was thinking about and how she thought she had affected her mom and dad. We then worked with her to come up with a plan to address the harm that had been caused. Part of her plan was to devise some ways to practice patience when she is bursting and can't wait to do something. Since the incident, we've supported her in carrying out her plan and we have seen an immediate improvement in her ability to be patient.


Hemanth Venkataraman aka Mister V

I am a school culture consultant who guides educators to effectively implement restorative practices in order to transform school culture and maximize educational outcomes for all students.

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