On August 4, Duval County School Board members voted to change the Student Code of Conduct to address concerns surrounding school fights and the negative impacts of out-of-school suspensions. The changes seek to improve punishment policies for repeat offenders and ensure victims who engage in self defense are not punished wrongly.
Many have questioned why additional changes were necessary after the School Board first made changes to these policies a year ago. This was because the previous changes failed to address a lingering problem: what happens to repeat offenders with multiple infractions for various violations.
While alternative schools and out-of-school suspensions will always be needed for addressing certain behavior problems, a growing body of research and experience shows these students are more likely to drop out or commit crimes every time they are suspended off campus. That is by far the worst outcome we want for any child.
With the new policies in place, school leaders can freely use an alternative approach, “restorative discipline” to work with students on campus, make them far less susceptible to dropping out or committing crime, and provide the guidance, counseling and academic supports they need to get back on track.
These changes are a win-win for teachers and students. First, when teachers can remove disruptive students from the traditional classroom without having to resort to more drastic measures, they maintain a positive learning environment for the other students and can rest assured that the disruptive student is getting the help they need.
Second, restorative practice resolves disciplinary problems in a cooperative and constructive way. Educators who use restorative practice as a classroom management tool find the behavior in their classroom improves dramatically, and these teachers appear to have a better rapport with their students. I know this from personal experience.
As a dean, I’ve seen these improvements first-hand. Since changing my own approach, I’ve had a number of students evolve from constant disruptions to the learning environment to well-behaved, upstanding students in a short amount of time. Once students feel empowered, the changes in their behavior are overwhelming. Suddenly, they are cooperative learners and rarely cause problems with teachers or their peers.
One of the biggest benefits to using restorative practice, whether school-wide or as a classroom management tool, is that it keeps students in school. Students who are repeatedly suspended from school often end up in what education reform activists call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Out-of-school deferments given for a minor code violations triple a student’s probability of becoming involved in the criminal justice system the following school year. Restorative practices can stop this vicious cycle.
Furthermore, traditional discipline is often ineffective because it fails to empower kids with the communication and coping skills they need to navigate these serious problems and stay out of trouble. My experience is that many students who find themselves in out-of-school suspensions are not bad students — they just come from terrible circumstances at home and do not know how to handle problems in a healthy way, turning to violence instead. Whatever the issue, if they experience “restorative practice” on campus with teachers who know them well, the chances they can help students find constructive ways to manage their emotions and recover from their anger issues dramatically improves.
Restorative practices should be the fundamental change in how we respond to rule violations and misbehavior. Traditional responses to disruptive behavior amount to a slap on the wrist, and thus we do children with serious emotional, home and academic issues an incredible disservice by choosing to ignore root causes behind their deviant behavior.
Duval County is not the only large district moving in this direction. Miami-Dade County schools made similar changes to its code of conduct in July after reaching the same conclusions about traditional out-of-school suspensions.
Restorative practices can really work well in schools. I commend Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and our school board for taking these positive steps. However, these changes will require a major paradigm shift for everyone since traditional approaches have been around for generations.
When restorative practice becomes the standard rather than the exception when it comes to school discipline and the future of our students, outcomes for students across our great city will continue to improve. Every time we change a bad outcome to a good one, we change a life. And that’s why I am a public school educator.
Check out the 2015-2016 Student Code of Conduct:
2013 Florida Blue Duval County Teacher of the Year and 2014 State Finalist