Race and Equity

OPINION: ‘Punitive discipline makes school feel like a prison, not a community’

Four ways to stop undermining education and educators

During horseplay with friends, a young man — a high school student — had shoved an elderly woman.

Now, he risked suspension. I was working in the student’s school as a staff developer at the time, helping to implement restorative practices as part of my work with Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. I drew the young man into a “restorative conference” with the principal and others.

Research shows that students of color are punished far more often and more harshly than white students for the same infractions — and sometimes for no infractions at all. That’s because often suspension isn’t about a child’s harmful behavior. It’s about adult assumptions and lack of awareness, especially related to race, class, gender and sexual orientation.

Related: The painful backlash against ‘no-excuses’ school discipline

My young friend initially sat silently, his head down. But after some gentle questions about what had happened and why, he tearfully shared that on top of several challenges at home, he’d felt shunned at school since a suspension two years before.

This young man thought he was “bad.” I told him that I believed his intention was not to hurt anyone, but that he had most certainly caused the woman harm. And while he had definitely made a bad decision, that didn’t make him a bad person. It was also important for the adults in the room to hear this so that they could begin to shift their thinking about who they perceived him to be. That way, they could better offer this young man the opportunity to experience himself differently.

We opened a door for this student to see himself as a good person again, to belong — and he walked through it. After talking over what had happened, he wanted to know: How could he make amends? Could he find that elderly woman and apologize? Volunteer at a senior center? It took sustained support for this young person, and a consistent message of caring and belonging from adults, to fully bring him back into the community. Today, he’s still in school, and he’s doing better academically.

I often think about what would have happened to this young man if he’d been suspended — told yet again that he was bad and didn’t belong. This is where the school-to-prison pipeline begins. And it begins even for students who haven’t caused serious harm.

Related: Educators worry schools are botching student discipline reform

Many schools and districts are moving to restorative practices as an alternative to punitive discipline because of the evidence that suspension throws young people into a world of hurt. A child who is suspended even once is much more likely to become alienated from school, drop out or enter the criminal justice system.

Punishing students — or calling the police — is a way of reacting to harm, not preventing it. Instead of simply substituting restorative practices for punitive ones, we should redefine the problem — and the solution. By fostering social and emotional learning (SEL) in young people and adults and by using restorative practices, we can not only prevent harm but also help people learn and practice skills they can use throughout their lives. It’s an antidote to the poison of violence in our society.

I’ve seen how punitive discipline has derailed the lives of countless young people — especially students of color, LGBTQ youth and students with disabilities. At Morningside Center, we believe that uprooting punitive discipline is essential for reasons that go far beyond reducing suspensions. Here are four of those reasons:

1. Punitive discipline doesn’t focus on helping either the person who caused the harm or the person who was harmed. In the restorative conference I described, we broke through and had a conversation with the young man that uncovered serious challenges he faced at home and school. He needed help. Restorative practices invite young people to share what’s really happening and get support if they need it. In contrast, punitive discipline focuses on punishing the harm-doer, often adding to the problem that led to the hurtful behavior. 

Punitive discipline doesn’t focus on helping the person who was harmed — the victim — either. In a suspension, the offender is whisked away and often the person who was harmed is left to deal on their own with feelings of hurt and vulnerability. In a restorative process, often the harmed person is there at the table, telling us what they need. Their well-being is central. There is no healing power greater than having your pain acknowledged, seeing remorse in the person who caused it and having the chance to forgive.

2. Punitive discipline doesn’t let educators educate. When a student causes harm, it’s a teachable moment. By simply suspending a student, we may lose our best chance to help that student learn and grow. Restorative processes help students understand the causes and impacts of their harmful acts and consider what they could have done differently. Further, educators are given an opportunity to demonstrate their full investment in their students’ growth as well as their complete commitment to deepening their own reflection practices. A community of care supports the building of trust and relationships in a way that includes both young people and adults.

3. Punitive discipline also undermines social and emotional learning. By helping young people (and adults) learn skills like managing anger, having empathy, challenging bias and practicing conflict resolution, we can prevent harm from occurring. But when it does, and adults use harsh discipline to address it, they undermine SEL. We should model the strategies and values that we want students to learn and the values that we hope they will embrace — like compassion and respect for every person.

4. Punitive discipline makes school feel like prison, not a community — and it violates our ideals as educators. Research shows that positive relationships and good communication make schools safer and more effective. It’s hard to create those good connections in schools where coercion, punishment and the threat of incarceration are everywhere. Schools do have security needs. Sometimes students must be suspended. But creating community is paramount.

Queens principal Patrick Burns used to enforce “zero tolerance” discipline: “That’s what I knew. But it doesn’t work. One of the best things we ever did was open our eyes to the importance of SEL and good relationships with students.” Burns credits these approaches with his school’s progress. “Suspensions are now a rarity. We don’t need suspensions to sustain student engagement and respect. Most of us became teachers because of an idealistic belief that we could have a positive impact on society. This brings us back to why we went into education in the first place.”

This story about punitive discipline was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Dionne Grayman, a staff developer at Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, helps public schools integrate restorative practices as well as social and emotional learning into their pedagogy.

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Dionne Grayman

Dionne Grayman helps public schools integrate restorative practices and social and emotional learning as a staff developer at Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. See Archive

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