IIn many urban schools there is a concern for customary and habitual suspensions and expulsions. These practices are largely driven by the over-representation of minority demographics. Minority students make up a large portion of the population of students who are suspended or expelled from school. Equally important is emerging research that indicates that these consequences, suspension and expulsion, are not likely to change the inappropriate behavior of the students involved, nor do they serve to deter other students from engaging in the same behaviors. Instead, these consequences make the suspended student’s academic progress more difficult and they may increase the likelihood of the student dropping out of school or having other negative life outcomes.
As a result, educational leaders are beginning to examine our school discipline policies with an eye for making them both more effective and less reliant on traditional exclusionary consequences. Employing restorative practices into school wide behavior management plans may help us to better serve students with behavior challenges. The typical behavior triangle illustrates the kinds of actions that have been built into our schools’ formal disciplinary codes of conduct as part of an array of preventions, interventions, and consequences for inappropriate behavior. The implementation of restorative practices in schools has at least some research demonstrating positive behavioral-change outcomes for students and the research is growing. When schools implement restorative practices they boost the opportunity to maintain or re-engage students in school rather than pushing them out.
To make these alternative options work as prevention or as a disciplinary consequence, some “prerequisites” may also be needed. A school climate supportive of positive behavior, efforts to build positive interactions, appropriate instruction, and ongoing close supervision may prevent behavior problems from growing to crisis proportions and requiring disciplinary consequences. Here are several examples of programs that support the previous alternatives to suspension:
- Creating a restorative and caring school community and climate. Programs that attend to patterns of good communication and problem solving, having clear patterns of authority and decision making, procedures for developing and implementing rules, helping students feel they belong and are welcome, good curriculum and instructional practices, and having a clean and positive physical environment.
- Efforts to build adult-student relationships. Programs offering opportunities for students to develop individual relationships with staff.
- Increased parent involvement and engagement. Programs that involve a variety of parents and community members in functions and activities within the school, and maintain communication about their children.
- Social Emotional Learning (SEL) , character education and consistent school values. School curriculum and organization features that promote the development of fundamental values in children. Typically these list desirable goals for student behavior.
- Early identification and intervention. Programs that permit systematic screening of students for potential behavior problems, and which provide interventions for the students identified as at “risk.”
- Mediation programs. Programs that teach students about non-violent conflict resolution and allow students to use and experience these in school. Peer-jury and mediation is one example.
- Bullying prevention and intervention. Programs that teach students about bullying behaviors and how they can be reported to teachers. Specific interventions are created for both bullies and victims.
- Conflict de-escalation training. Programs that teach staff and students to recognize and to disengage from escalating conflict.
- School-wide discipline program. Programs that develop a common terminology and consistent approach to discipline across school staff. Responsibilities of students and staff are identified, consistency in rule enforcement is increased, and consequences are identified for positive and negative behaviors occurring anywhere in school.
- Positive office referrals and recognition. Programs that “catch students being good” and identify, reward, and celebrate individual students for appropriate behavior (e.g., attendance, being on-time, improving grades, meeting behavior goals).
Each of these “prerequisites” is also supported by a body of research that indicates positive, promising effects on student behavior in school. If they are to be effective, these “foundations” must be implemented in such a way as to become a normal part of that school’s culture. They enable the “disciplinary alternatives” of restorative practices to be effective by providing the context and skills for appropriate behavior. They will permit a substantial reduction in the use of suspension and expulsion as disciplinary options; have the side effect of decreasing staff stress related to behavior, and increases academic achievement for all students. They will also provide a way to reduce the involvement of students with emotional or behavioral disorders in the problems associated with suspension and expulsion.
Urban schools should be cracking down on students with discipline problems by implementing restorative practices that will decrease out of school suspensions and expulsion that do more harm than good. An alternative to suspension plan is rooted in the development of sound restorative justice practices, prevention of constant inappropriate behavior and intervention that transforms behavior when necessary. The suspension or expulsion of students with emotional and/or behavioral challenges due to the societal ills, which plague them, has been problematic and controversial. Restorative practices should be a constant source of training and collaboration among school leadership teams and their staffs. Many urban education leaders are rightfully concerned about the numbers of students who are being suspended or expelled for their inappropriate behavior. Yet very little is being done to change the behavior.