How Governments Abuse and Neglect Kids

Published by EducationNews.org — Once again, adults battling to force cutbacks in charter schools are ignoring what’s best for students.

(Photo: George Hodan, Creative Commons)

When still young and blissfully naive, I was appointed to the Providence School Board.  I was sure my clever, well-informed interview with the outgoing Mayor had knocked it out of the park.  I later discovered I was merely a goad to the in-coming Mayor.  No big deal; I was there anyway, getting what I later called my PhD in urban education.

Within about six months I realized I’d stumbled into a nasty political power game.  Tax money was collected from the public in the name of educating kids, but then passed among the adult players.  The battles — legal, contractual, fiscal, regulatory — left the students themselves looking like the ball that rolls off the court while team players are having at each other.  The adults had lawyers, precedents and policies backing them.  The kids had no voice to speak of, and were, in my eyes, getting a super raw deal.  I left my old life and started working for them.

Perhaps the adults didn’t see how their actions affected kids.  Perhaps they didn’t care.  Likely, most would have argued that they cared deeply for students, but were powerless against the status quo.  During many years as an education journalist, I saw this same set of perverse priorities played out, from feds to states to local authorities.  Rhode Island is not unique.  Still.  Government officials should always be asking if their decisions will nurture the kids, no matter what the sector.  And Education has no excuse not to.

Public battles between adults over money and power hurt kids.

Fights that seem to be deliberately instigated are particularly pernicious.  Here’s what set me off this time:

Last fall Legislators convened a Commission to adjust the state’s funding formula for per pupil expenditure (ppe).  A state’s education funding formula is a mind-numbingly complex set of metrics designed to determine how much funding the state will assure each student.  The variables include special categories of students — those with special needs, English language learners, poverty — along with each municipality’s different ability to pay.  That’s a super-simple version.  A taste of the student-based complexities are here in appendix “B.”

Every state hates their funding formula.  None are perfect.  They balance scarce public dollars against a bazillion demands on each penny, so a funding formula is not something to be tweaked in a couple of months by a committee.

This Legislative Commission’s charge was to explore whether or not the regular district schools were getting their fair share, as compared with the public charter schools.  Ooo, red flag.  The real missions seemed designed to turn up the heat under the ever-simmering tensions between the charters and their traditional counterparts.  To add more tension to the game, any adjustments would have to be revenue neutral, meaning no new money on the table.  Zero-sum games inevitably create winners and losers.  Any change means some loser kids will take it in the neck.

RI’s per-pupil expenditure is 40% higher than the national average.  Its student performance is the lowest in New England.  (See here.)  But overall, the charters, with their 5.2% of the public-school population, are high performers, especially given that 80% of their kids are low-income and/or children of color.  They are not beloved by the districts.

Someone got this battle started, eyes wide open. 

The issues the adults are arguing about are real.  True, a disproportionate number of high-cost special-needs kids are in the district schools.  Also true: charters are reimbursed only 30% for their buildings and repairs while districts get 80%.  And so it goes, with this and that placed on each side of the scales, charter versus district.

But adding a weird element to this case, the Commission unearthed a surprise.  In 2014, the Department of Education started deviating from the funding formula by changing the math to give more money to the traditional districts.  The decline in charter funding is now up to $360 per kid.  Weirder still, the officials didn’t send the memo explaining to the charters that their funding was decreasing.  Now, added to that loss, the Commission decided to reduce the charter share by another $350 per pupil.  Suddenly most charters will have a structural deficit that will badly wound their programs.  The families of their kids are freaking out — and with good reason.

Per usual, depriving certain kids is being done in the name of fairness, equity and educational quality.  It’s bizarre that the Commission feels okay about doing this.  The easiest fix would have been to run the formula as enacted and take the issues to a more comprehensive Commission.  If that was going to take too long, find additional money to balance the scales without hurting kids.  And don’t say there’s no money.  Legislatures can always find money when they want.

Shame on the State for allowing this war.  End it.  And for heaven’s sake, stop doing this to the kids.  How come they always slip people’s minds?

(Photo: George Hodan, Creative Commons)

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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At Last! A Review of Research on Restorative Justice In Schools

Published by EducationNews.org — Early studies of RJ programs in the US show their impact in reducing suspensions and harmful behavior.

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Local Restorative Practices/Restorative Justice (RP/RJ) initiatives have been starving for research on America’s efforts to implement programs.  The large body of evidence showing the ineffectiveness of punishment doesn’t seem to make an adequately compelling argument for supporting Restoration.  And international research, while positive, has limited utility because each country’s educational system is somewhat different from each other’s, making comparisons hard.

So I’m relieved that the Robert Wood Johnston Foundation published a review of the existing literature this past February.  Restorative Justice in Schools: A Research Review concludes that overall, Restorative Justice (RJ) has been showing promising results.  “Teachers who implemented RJ frequently had better relationships with their students. The students felt respected by their teachers, and teachers generally issued fewer referrals.”  Those of us in the field have known this for some time.  Now we can say so with some clout, although the authors concede that this research is still “in its infancy.”

What is Restorative Justice in Schools?

There is no standardized definition of RJ, so the heavily-footnoted report turns to The National Centre for Restorative Approaches in Youth Settings.  They define it as “an innovative approach to offending and inappropriate behavior which puts repairing harm done to relationships and people over and above the need for assigning blame and dispensing punishment. A restorative approach in a school shifts the emphasis from managing behavior to focusing on the building, nurturing and repairing of relationships.”

In other words, RJ gets away from a myopic focus on guilt or innocence and works on reknitting relationships and community.

A summary of the obstacles to implementing RJ in schools:

The report states, “RJ requires staff time and buy-in, training, and resources that traditional sanctions such as suspension do not impose on the school. With RJ, teachers are often required to perform duties traditionally outside of their job description, such as attending RJ trainings, conducting circles during instruction time, and spending more time one-on-one talking with students. Some educators and other stakeholders are resistant to RJ because it is sometimes perceived as being “too soft” on student offenses. Finally, while RJ programs will certainly vary by the size of the school and scope of the program, some researchers suggest that a shift in attitudes toward punishment may take one to three years, and the deep shift to a restorative-oriented school climate might take up to three to five years.”

The critical issue of racial disparities

Punitive sanctions have the toxic effect of driving students — particularly minority and poor students — out of school altogether.  Furthermore, research shows significant disparities in exclusionary punishment for racial minorities and students with disabilities. “For example, minority students are suspended three times more than White students… A study from one Texas district that found African American students were 26.2% more likely to receive out-of-school suspension for their first offense than White students. Students who are suspended, all things being equal, are more at risk for poor attendance, inability to progress to the next grade, failure to graduate, and subsequent involvement in the juvenile and adult justice systems.”

The disparities might be the result of the growing use of law-enforcement methods “(e.g., armed police or security forces patrolling the grounds, metal detectors, security cameras, locker searches)… These procedures have led to students perceiving that their schools are like prisons and that they are viewed as criminals committing crimes, especially as they are designated as ‘suspects’ and ‘under investigation.’”

A few images of RP/RJ’s impact

RP/RJ has been most successful where the programs have stood the test of time, grown and become sustainable — such as some in California, Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.  But RJ programs or models can be successful whether implemented in public, private, or alternative schools, in urban or suburban environments, in one school or every school in a district.

“All the empirical studies we reviewed report a decrease in exclusionary discipline and harmful behavior (e.g., violence) after implementing some type of RJ program.

For example, (one researcher) reports an 84% drop in out-of-school suspensions among sixth graders in one Texas school during the first year RJ was introduced, and a 19% drop in all suspensions… Denver schools that implemented restorative circles and conferencing report a 44% reduction in out-of-school suspensions. They also report an overall decrease in expulsions across the three-year post-implementation period.  In Oakland, Cole Middle School experienced an 87% drop in suspensions across the first two years of implementation compared to the prior three years; expulsions were eliminated entirely after RJ was put in place. More recent figures from Oakland suggest continued success, with a 74% drop in suspensions and a 77% decrease in referrals for violence during a two-year follow up.”

Not too shabby.  The report notes that other large-scale research is taking place now and that more hard data will be available within the foreseeable future.  In the meantime, for those looking for an “evidence-base,” the gold standard for getting grants and credibility, this worthy report is a welcome, if early, addition.

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Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Communities Create Their Own Safety; Police Only Help

Published by EducationNews.org — We can fall into the habit of thinking the responsibility for certain problems belongs to someone else.

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David Karp, who directs Skidmore College’s Project on Restorative Justice, tells this story:  Some time ago, a student, whom we’ll call Sarah, came to class one day visibly upset.  She’d been “harmed,” in the language of Restorative Justice (RJ), so her plight was appropriate for discussion in a criminal justice class.

Apparently she had been hanging with friends near their off-campus apartment when they looked up and saw a guy staring at them.  They noted that he was creepy, but whatever.  They dispersed.  That night Sarah and her housemates went to bed, but she heard noises in the living room.  She peeked to see what was going on and saw the same guy.  Freaked, she hid.  The guy left the house.  Sarah rallied her housemates, all of whom found another place to go that night.  The lock on a door had been broken, so the creep had just slipped in – and could again.

That was Sunday.  Monday was class.  She was totally rattled.  Her fellow students wanted blood, as is typical.  They wanted the cops to come and stake the place out so they could capture the guy and throw him into jail.

Problem solved.

Well, not so fast.  Yes, the police should certainly be alerted.  They should get a description of what is so far only a sketchy guy, and agree to keep an eye out for him and on that neighborhood.  They would urge getting the lock fixed.

But the police aren’t going to expend resources on a stakeout, a crime scene with finger-printing, an APB and the rest of what college TV-watchers think cops should do to protect fellow students.  The good professor’s burning question was:  Sarah felt violated, so what did she need right now?  How might Restorative Justice approach this situation?

Police do not make communities safe; communities make themselves safe. 

Communities set standards for behavior designed to help each individual feel safe.  The police are an extension of the community’s public safety efforts, but not a replacement for them — just as doctors support health, but are not replacements for healthy eating and exercise.  The rise of professional services has reduced the need to care for ourselves and one another.  So individuals fall into the habit of thinking that the responsibility for certain problems belongs to someone else.

In the Restorative Justice world, the community itself is the frontline of handing conflict and harm.  Yes, professional police do the heavy lifting of controlling uncontrollable behavior.  But safety is a product of building trust with one another.  Crime statistics notwithstanding, safety is a feeling.  These days, crime stats are down, but people still report feeling unsafe.  So without dumping the responsibility on the police, Karp asked, how can we help Sarah feel safe?

The class had to stop a moment to think.  That’s a way different problem than the one posed by our TV-infused faith in “trail ‘em, nail ‘em, jail em.”

One young man said he knew how to fix a lock and would do it after class.

Another student’s mother was a lawyer and knew about leases.  He could solicit his mom’s help getting the girl and her roommates out of that lease so they could get another place.

A third suggested all give Sarah their cell phone numbers so she can always reach out and get someone to be with her if she’s not feeling safe at home.

Sarah felt enormously supported.

So right there, in the midst of a class discussion, the offender’s side of the equation ceased to be the issue among the students.  Normally, in the current justice system, it’s the State versus Whomever.  But where’s the victim?  Who’s important here?  In traditional justice, victims have no voice in the proceedings, nor does anyone fuss about their need to heal.  But crime is a broken relationship between the victim and the offender.  And that rupture in turn rocks the trust of the community.

Karp says, “Even if there is a discussion about reparations (to victims), we don’t talk about rebuilding trust.  We build trust and community by allowing each member a voice in the process.”

Sarah came away from that class feeling far safer and more cared about personally than if the cops vowed some harsh action.  Cops would not have wrapped her warmly in their community embrace and brought their own personal resources to her aid.  This is no knock on cops; it’s just not what they do.  Sarah got super lucky that she was in that she was in a class that morning that wanted to be a community she could trust.  Individuals and communities would be better off caring for one another more intimately and using the professionals only when necessary.  We’d all feel safer if Sarah’s “luck” were more common.

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Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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San Antonio’s Restoration Center Weaves a Social-Support Fabric

Published by EducationNews.org — It can be done:  a coherent and effective system for dealing with mental illness.

san_antonio

Back in the 1970s, Leon Evans became the director of a community mental health center in San Antonio, Texas.  A social worker by training, Evans knew how to manage organizations that deal with mental illness, keeping afloat often-stressed frontline workers as they serve those suffering all manners of distress.  Little did he know that to succeed, he’d have to build an entirely new model.

Bear in mind that mental illness can mean anything from disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar to the frantic, terrified state of a woman whose partner suddenly abandoned her with three kids.  Mental illness is when a mind’s dysfunction is beyond the TLC of family and friends.

By 2000, San Antonio’s county government tapped Evans and his vast experience to run its entire mental health system.  Immediately this giant bear of a man, an ex-wrestler, looked around and realized that he, the mental health Centers, and the people they served were drowning.  Both the sheer numbers of people and the severity of their illnesses were increasing at rates defeating him and his budget.  Texas is 49th in the nation in funding on mental health.

The jails were stuffed to the gills with people whose real problems were substance abuse, PTSD, and other varieties of mental illness.  Evans couldn’t address his systemic problems without collaborating with the police and judicial system.  This was way easier said than done.  As Evans said in an NPR story, just getting folks to the table was by far the hardest part.  For starters, mental health workers don’t speak the same language as police.  Nor do they share the language, traditions and expectations of doctors, courts, transportation, housing, hospitals, town governments, child protective services or education.  Together they were a public services Tower of Babel.

It took a county judge to help Evans push them together. 

When they finally sat down together, of course, agency representatives found that they were serving many of the same clients — repeatedly and ineffectively.  Recidivism to jails, hospitals and drug treatments was and is astronomically high.  Clients have overlapping needs.  A flare-up of mental illness might precipitate homelessness, alcoholism, the commission of a crime.  Each problem had its own solution from a different agency or system.  The community mental health centers were only one of many systems.

These centers had grown as a response to the 1960′s public outrage sparked by exposes on scandalous hospitals that warehoused the mentally ill.  The resulting “deinstitutionalization” movement involved creating community-based mental health centers to manage the care for the mentally ill in far more humane ways, in home and neighborhood settings.  For a while the system worked well, or at least better.  But over time politicians chipped away at their resources, often reallocating funding to less stigmatized populations.  And no one anticipated the rapid fraying of nuclear and extended families, nor the decline of informal social supports like clubs and churches.  As money tightened, the demand for services grew.

Getting a fix on the public expenditures for mental illness is nearly impossible because the dollars are spread across different agencies’ budgets.  For example, most calculations fail to acknowledge that jails and prisons have become the largest mental health providers in the nation.  According to some estimates, well over half of all people incarcerated suffer some mental dysfunction — substance abuse issues, depression, PTSD, or other ailments.  And I would say that estimate is low.

To work towards a sustainable solution, Evans talked the relevant parties into pooling their money for what he called a “Restoration Center.”  The police contributed their drug seizure money.  The courts, jails, hospitals, and the county government also kicked in.

This money made it possible to run a large one-stop drop-in center where representatives from all the services are co-located.  It has 24/7 psychiatric services to stabilize the mentally ill and get them to an appropriate longer-term facility.  It has a detox program, a homeless shelter across the street, a physician on staff, and so forth.  Sometimes the police bring someone.  Sometimes whole families walk in off the streets.  The Center serves about 18,000 people a year.

The savings to the County so far are about $10 million a year.  As the agencies hone their systems, and as the population hopefully gets healthier, they will save even more.

Thanks to Evans, I now dream of a Restoration Center, but one servicing children and families at the other end of the spectrum where mental illness, homelessness and substance abuse might be prevented.  Evans’ Restoration Center is across from a homeless shelter, but mine would be across from a fabulous park or adventure playground.  There, mental health workers could interact with families to support actual mental health, resilience, social skill-building, and conflict management.  Children would get help at early signs of distress or dysfunction.  Imagine the savings if we did that.

Working together, humans can accomplish the miraculous.  Evans did.  We need more people like him to bulldog us into it.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Drugs, Drop-outs and Restorative Justice Conferencing

Published by EducationNews.org — When a student knows what she wants, it’s a lot easier to help her get through trouble.

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The lovely Roxanna, as we’ll call her, sighed heavily as she joined a circle that included a school administrator, two conference facilitators and her very pissed-off dad.  The teacher who had promised to make it could not.  Roxanna agreed to participate in a restorative-justice conference for drug possession, hoping to resolve the matter by making reparations rather than risk more traditional consequences in which she’ll have little or no say.

Simultaneously sheepish and defiant – common behavior in these conferences – she assured the group that she wasn’t high.  She’d just forgotten that she had a little stash.  Her purse spilled, and an adult saw it.  But she wasn’t stoned or acting weird.  So it wasn’t a big a deal.  She’s hardly the only one who smokes weed occasionally.  Besides, she says, she’s changed.  She has ambitions, so she needs her diploma.

Everyone else at the table thinks it’s a big deal.  Her father certainly didn’t struggle to bring his family from their homeland for the kind of nonsense his kid is dishing out.  To him, this is very personal, very upsetting.

This conferencing program helps divert students from getting caught up in “the system” – meaning Truancy Court, Family Court and the judicial system.  Actually, as the objections to marijuana have relaxed over the years, Rhode Island and other states have made possession of small amounts a matter of relatively minor fines.  Drugs are still illegal for anyone under 18, but Roxanna is over 18.  The police could only issue a ticket for a fine that no one wants to make this dad pay.

The conference is Roxanna’s second chance at a second chance.

While the cops aren’t much of a problem, Roxanna risks losing the opportunity to get her high school diploma. She’s in a special program for students who are “over-aged and under-credited” — meaning that they blew off a significant portion of high school.  She had already dropped out once and now she’s back.  But given her age and drug-involvement, the program has no obligation to keep her.  Everyone at the table hopes she’ll take advantage of this unusual conferencing opportunity to salvage her situation.

The lead facilitator goes over the simple rules – take turns, speak for yourself, no accusatory statements, things like that.  The victims speak first, so the administrator, representing the community, talks with frustration about what a plague drugs in school have become.  Doing drugs out of school is bad enough, but in school drugs wreck learning both for the addled and the students around them.

Roxanna shrugs; she’s not convinced. She reiterates that she wasn’t high.  The adults cringe.

Then the dad tearfully explains how hurt he feels.  He and her siblings love her, but they are ashamed.  Roxanna rolls her eyes.  He’s had to take part of the day off work, which he’ll have to make up.  Mom’s apparently not in the picture.  He seems exhausted.

Roxanna says she’s sorry already, wishing everyone would just chill.  The facilitators shift to the reparations phase, when the group tries to hammer out an agreement.  Assuming she’s remorseful, which seems doubtful at this point, and that she completes the agreement, the slate will be wiped clean with no further repercussions.  Per protocol, the facilitators begin by asking her what she hopes for after high school, what she wants to do for a career.

“I want to be a stewardess.” 

Oka-ay.  Kids who just shrug when asked what they want are far harder to help.  A kid’s dream is like building materials for facilitators; you can work with them.  One facilitator opens a laptop and searches “requirements for becoming a stewardess.”  Humph.  He scans it, reading out loud – you need a high-school diploma or GED…  no visible tattoos.  Ooooo, mandatory drug testing is a condition of hiring for most airlines.  Random drug testing thereafter.  Stewardesses need to be drug-free.

That totally got her attention.  The conference went silent as she digested the information.  Her defensiveness softened.  Her voice was apologetic.  “I really do want to be a stewardess.”  All right, then, what would make this right?  Suddenly becoming a problem-solver, she suggested reparations – three sessions of drug counseling, an essay on the effects of drugs that she would proofread carefully, and the promise to be scrupulously on time to her classes every day.  Writing this agreement was quick; everyone signed.  Dad looked like he could finally sleep at night.  Very gratifying.

Roxanna did finish what she promised to do, and she did it well before the agreement’s deadline.  And she received her diploma in a cap and gown during a mid-year ceremony.  Getting kicked out of the program would have been painful, but not nearly as memorably upsetting as sitting with family and supporters to give an account of her foolish behavior and take responsibility for it.  Without the conference, Roxanna’s misbehavior could have ended her dream.  But I’ll bet she’s a stewardess now.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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School Suspensions Model the Wrong Behavior for Students

Published by EducationNews.org — By our actions, we teach intolerance.

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Last week we looked at reasons why kids misbehave — how sometimes they can’t or they won’t act in community-appropriate ways.  Whether it’s a choice for them or not, it’s always a big pain for the people around them.

So this week we’ll look at the most common response to misbehavior, which is best described as a sort of banishment.  It’s punishment, yes, but specifically an aggressive cutting-off of being in relation to the offender.  Such ways of rejection include belittling, berating, humiliating, isolating, suspending, expelling — basically trying to hurt the kid into compliance.  In short, we kick ‘em out.

And it has become such a habit, we do so mindlessly.  At least we did until the relatively recent attention to the school-to-prison pipeline.  The berating and so forth start before actually suspending the kid, which is the mouth of that pipeline.  And while anyone can understand why teachers want disruptive kids removed from class, it’s harder to fathom other unexamined knee-jerk practices such as kicking kids out of school for not being in school.

Schools take offense at bunking, and offense deserves punishment.

In 2012 the fine researcher Robert Balfanz raised the nation’s consciousness regarding chronic absenteeism in the report The Importance of Being in School.  “Chronic absenteeism” is defined as missing at least 10% of school time.  As officials worked on reducing the problem, they found that kids might be absent less if they ceased to be punished for the offense.  In Rhode Island, as elsewhere, students were routinely suspended for skipping school.  It’s like a bad joke:  If you’re not coming to school, kid, let’s make it official.  But no one seemed to notice that kicking kids out of school for not being in school made no sense.

During the 2010-11 school year, more than half of all suspensions in Rhode Island high schools were related to attendance — including skipping class and detention.  In 2012-13, the year after RI passed legislation outlawing suspensions for absenteeism, the total number of high-school suspensions of all kinds dropped almost by half.

Kicking people out of school and out of society reflects a community norm.

In theory, tolerance is super-important to American culture.  We value inclusion.  We welcome diverse people into our community.  We want children to share, get along, be accepting of the new kid, the odd kid, the English language learner.

But by our actions, we teach intolerance.  By our actions, kids know that when they are offended or harmed, the proper response is to retaliate and inflict some hurt themselves.  Yes, they get in trouble, but they see few alternatives modeled for them.  Schools and parents get super irate about bullying, and if bullies are caught, or even accused, they get bullied themselves by disciplinarian adults.  We teach punishment.

So kids grow up hoping they are on the end of meting out the punishment.

Typically at the beginning of the school year, teachers detail their classroom expectations to the kids, post them on the wall, and explain how they will be enforced.  Restorative practices always involve the community’s voice as a whole, because it encourages cooperation.  So restorative classrooms create the norms or rules as a class, kids and teacher together.  When the kids are asked what consequences might be for violating the class norms they just worked out together, their answers are usually just short of the guillotine, or tar-and-feathering.  Even “bad” kids have no empathy for future offenders; they are among the most eager to contribute harsh suggestions.  But they’re only parroting back what they learned from adults.  They need help dialing back their firm grounding in kick-out techniques to imagine dopier little consequences like doing push-ups or singing a song for 30 seconds.

An acquaintance of mine lives across from a large elementary school.  When windows are open during warm days, she hears constant yelling.  This is not secret abuse, but acceptable behavior.  Though some members of the community may not like it, they don’t complain.  The message to the kids is that this is community-appropriate behavior.

Considering that much of the world considers the U.S. to be the land of innovation, our schools suffer a surprising poverty of imagination when it comes to disciplining kids.  No evidence supports the efficacy of punishment.  And it certainly doesn’t win kids’ cooperation.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Instead of School Suspensions, Let’s Listen to Kids

Published by EducationNews.org — Kicking out the disruptive kids is convenient.  But what do we, or they, learn from it?

suspension

Allow me to say right off the top that I believe each out-of-school suspension is a symptom of a mental or social issue.  I’d call them symptoms of disease, but some are more like sniffles.

In 2014, President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper sparked awareness not only of the frequency of suspensions, but also of the glaring racial disparities among those suspended.  Some states are using legislation to curtail these kick-out practices that appear to be the starting point of the school-to-prison pipeline.

The Restorative Practices/Justice lens asks us to take a step back from the offending incident itself to consider the bigger picture.  What does the offense tell us about the community as a whole — school, neighborhood, family?  What contributed to it?  A kid who has damaged property, behaved abusively towards a teacher or gotten into a fight must take responsibility for her action.  But what does the behavior mean?

School staff ask about what happened, but rarely do they go deeply into the matter.  Suspension is a quick, time-honored response.  But its convenience cuts off any chance of understanding the kid, the symptom, or the conditions that nurtured the yucky behavior.  I once heard a restorative guidance counselor ask a kid if his disruptive behavior was trying to say something.  Without hesitation, he said:  “We have no food.  My dad’s gone.  I’m not sure where.”  What’s a suspension going to accomplish?

Kicking kids out does not teach them how to behave in a community-appropriate manner.  Nor does more time in front of the TV or video game get to the root of a mental or familial problem.  Sometimes better classroom management, or more engaging instruction, would ward off unwanted behavior.  And sometimes, to protect the other kids’ learning, teachers feel they have no choice but to kick a kid out of their class.  But usually, suspensions banish the problem only temporarily.

Four reasons why kids misbehave:

The first two are opposite sides of the same coin:

1.  Learned behavior — For example, many urban students live in families and communities where they are sworn at constantly.  School staff, not uncommonly suburban themselves, can easily be offended by kids’ hideous language and aggressive demeanor.  It’s ugly, don’t get me wrong.  But it’s learned behavior.  By all means, teach them why it’s necessary to unlearn it.  Help them understand that it should not spill into schools or the workplace.  A restorative question might be:  “Does this language (or other behavior) happen at home?”  If so, it’s private and needs to stay at home.

2.  Unlearned Behavior, which is to say social skills not yet mastered –  The occasional kid who comes to school eating with her hands has never been taught to use a fork.  More often, when kids haven’t been taught to take turns, they talk so intrusively as to be maddening.  Others throw punches at the most minor offense because they’ve been taught to fight for survival.

3.  Trauma — We have all experienced some degree of trauma in our lives — a car accident, death in the family, job loss.  Healthy people manage to respond in more and less healthy ways.  But kids, especially those most suffering from chaotic urban poverty, often act out as a way of expressing their distress.  I knew a 6th grader who occasionally howled uncontrollably during the class.  If you knew her backstory, you’d howl too.  And yelling at traumatized kids often sets them off.  Kicking them out effectively blames the kid for being triggered.

4.  Brat behavior — Yes, some kids get away with whatever they can.  I was one of them.  To avoid a boring Spanish class, I snuck away with friends to smoke cigarettes.  When we got caught, we lost privileges that I wanted back.  I knew I ran a risk of consequences, but getting kicked out would have been an invitation to rebel yet more.

No one likes rotten, undisciplined manners and social skills. 

But yelling, punishing, humiliating, lecturing, and all forms of trying to hurt the kid into compliance, do not improve social skills.  They don’t calm the traumatized child.  They don’t help the brat see her arrogant ways.  They are the opposite of listening and modeling behavior we want to see.

Being heard is a powerful, palpable feeling.  Suspensions shut the kid up.  But what is the behavior trying to tell us?  Unless we listen, we don’t know.  Traditional public schools have not been expected to take time to hear kids’ voices, issues, and frustrations.  As a result, problems and rebellion inevitably fester.  We don’t have to believe everything they say, but good heavens:  ask.  Listen. In a healthy community, all voices must be heard — kids, staff, families community members.

Because when community members — of a classroom, a school, a neighborhood — are satisfied that they’re being heard, they’ll establish trust.  Yes, creating ways to hear each person is a heavy lift.  But it is precisely what will end suspensions as we know them.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Mental Health Does Not Mean Mental Illness

Published by EducationNews.org — Why the paucity of information about maintaining good mental health?

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I’m sure the ex-Congressman Patrick Kennedy had little to do with the copywriting for his new website, One Mind.  But I wish he’d read it more closely.  Kennedy has done great service lending his celebrity to advocating for the mentally ill in a number of ways.  He’s making the talk show rounds chatting up his book, A Common Struggle, about his own personal story, made fascinating in part by its star-studded cast of family members.  But also, he’s right on the money as to what’s wrong with our mental-health non-system and our attitudes towards those suffering from mental illness.

Perhaps most importantly, his signature legislation, The Mental Health Parity and Substance Abuse Equity Act of 2008, forces insurers to consider funding treatments to an ill mind on a par with treatments to an ill body.  The battle for actual parity is far from won, but Kennedy’s contribution is huge.

Now, via his One Mind site, Kennedy is raising money to conduct research into brain and behavior disorders.  And one of his major efforts will be to reduce stigma.

But here’s a problem: click on the One Mind tab marked “The Epidemic,” and there, in bold black type you find:

“Mental health affects more people than you think.”

This statement reveals a misunderstanding so deep I’d bet even Kennedy might not see it.  When people say “mental health,” what they mean is “mental illness.”  Makes me nuts.  What that sentence intends to say is that “Mental illness affects more people than you think.”  That sentence is painfully correct.  But even it masks the core of a serious problem.

Like having a body, everyone has a mind.  Both body and mind are in some state of health.  A body might have a cold or a broken leg or lung cancer.  Over the past decade, the public has become far more mindful of their physical health — their health, not their illnesses.

But what is mental health?  Even concepts like “substance-abuse prevention” focus on illness. Exactly as with physical health, nurturing robust mental health would also be cheaper in the long run, would improve the quality of our lives, and oh by the way, be a huge favor to the kids.  Helping children learn to be healthy by modeling good mental health habits ourselves is a two-fer — they get healthier because we’re getting healthier.

People and businesses both are changing their behavior to promote and enhance existing good physical health.  The fresh-food movement is now so established that McDonald’s is closing more outlets than they’re opening this year.  Millennials prefer to bike rather than drive, improving the quality of their air while exercising.  Yoga studios abound.

But I challenge you to identify the mental health equivalents of axioms like eat right, don’t smoke and exercise regularly.

Google “mental health” and you will find materials on mental illness.

researcher on TED argues that robust relationships will bring you happiness, but says nothing about mental health.  Happiness is certainly an indication of health, but it might be an unreasonably high bar for describing “mental health.”  Resilience might be better because it implies that mentally healthy people handle adversity more effectively.  The American Psychological Association has suggestions for promoting resilience, which include being hopeful and maintaining a positive self image. But what do you actually do to do that?  We know how to restrict calorie intake when we’re overweight.

Why the paucity of information about maintaining good mental health?  Kennedy likely would argue that it starts with being utterly unable to discuss mental illness.  Physical illness does not remotely carry the stigma that even, say, depression does.  So Kennedy’s One Mind website is right to discuss, openly, what Dr. Judith Herman calls the “unspeakable.”  I admire his advocacy for the mentally-ill.

But we will continue to ignore our own mental health, at our peril, if we continue to use “health” as a euphemism for “illness.”  From my child-oriented point of view, we’ll never be able to help kids thrive until we can help them maintain and promote their own mental health.

The task is to elaborate on the whole spectrum of mental health.  We need more vocabulary and images of those minor, but debilitating, habits of mind that obstruct the lives of “normal” people.  Adults and kids alike need a wealth of go-to-the-gym images for the healthy end of the spectrum.  Kennedy is elegantly positioned to do just that.  Here’s hoping he will.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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What If South Carolina’s Body-Slammed Teen Had Been Treated Restoratively?

Published by EducationNews.org — There may be no good excuse for disrupting class, but a punitive response can just exacerbate the problem.

body_slammed_teen

Restorative practices are simple tools for handling conflict in ways that maximize the possibility of a happy ending.  The practices are habits of the mind and heart.  So let’s revisit last October’s nasty incident at Spring Valley High with an eye on how things might have gone differently if the school had been Restorative.

Likely you remember the cellphone videos that went viral, showing a math class where a teenage girl’s non-compliance triggered a violent assault by a School Resource Officer (SRO).  The attack on her would have been appalling under any circumstances, but to boot, the uniformed police officer was white and the girl was black.

The girl’s classmates reported that she had pulled out her cellphone, a bane of many schools’ existence these days.  Adolescents are by nature easily distracted, but this generation has been raised in part by electronic baby sitters, so their phones are not just interesting, but comforting.  Was the girl unprepared or feeling stupid in this algebra class?  We don’t know.  We know she was distracted and distracting.

The 16-year veteran teacher asked her to put it away.  She refused.  He asked her to go to the “discipline office.”  She refused again, so he got the SRO.  The videos show her clinging to the chair in defiance of the officer.  But he totally lost his stuff.  After slamming her to the ground, he threw her out the door.  He was fired soon after.  The reports mostly focus on him.

Restorative schools are trauma-informed.

Among the few facts revealed about the girl was that she was in foster care.  A state’s Child Protective Services remove kids from their homes when the parents are abusive, seriously neglectful, substance abusers, radically incompetent, or dead.  So foster-care kids have been traumatized, if only by being removed.  They have precious little control over their lives.  The girl asserted what power she had.  Neither the cop nor the teacher necessarily knew the girl’s circumstances, nor do most school staff need to know kids’ personal business.  But “trauma-informed” means that adults are fully aware that such circumstances are always possible – with any kid.

In other words, when confronting nasty behavior, the safe assumption is that it could be signaling the presence of trauma.  If so, the trauma can be ignited by yelling, humiliating, or generally getting into a head-butt with someone unwilling to comply with orders.  When trauma overwhelms a person, their brain shuts off its language center and executive function, leaving the body and primitive parts of the brain to defend itself with primitive methods.  They can not use their words appropriately.  So getting into a power struggle with a traumatized kid risks triggering out-of-control behavior.  Better to tread lightly and assume that the kid may not be capable of responding appropriately.

Ask three caring, de-escalating questions first.

Mind you, nothing excuses a student for disrupting a class.  The rest of the class deserves to learn.  But punitive techniques like kicking the kid out often exacerbate the problem.

Restorative 101 would recommend speaking to a misbehaving kid, like the girl with the phone, in a calm, lowered voice — always a good de-escalating tactic.  And instead of making commands or statements, ask a couple of questions in a caring, sincere, non-sarcastic tone.  Questions such as:

“Are you expecting an important call?”  This calls the kid out for her behavior.  Some people object that such call-outs are themselves embarrassing.  But the kid clearly needs help seeing that what she’s doing has a negative effect on the classroom community.  She’s made her behavior their business.  No reason to be mean, but does she understand what the big picture looks like?  A tiny prick of shame is okay, especially if it helps her put her phone in her pocket.

“Is there something going on with you today that’s distracting you?  If so, I’ve got a minute after class to talk.”  Most kids are going to say no whatever the circumstances.  But if the teacher is available after class, perhaps with one more kind question, at least the kid might feel cared about.  Maybe she’ll say something pertinent.

Or:  “Can the phone wait?  This is algebra and we all need to concentrate.”

The SRO might have been entirely unnecessary.

Granted, teachers don’t feel they have time to ask such questions.  Some feel a disruptive kid doesn’t deserve helpful attention.  But a moment of caring might have made a huge difference to our foster-care teen.  And an argument that leads to a kick-out disrupts the class hugely.  A few quick questions can make it clear whether the kid can settle into class or truly needs to be elsewhere.

The point is that a gentle, trauma-informed approach can de-escalate and prevent conflicts.  Restorative practices can’t guarantee redeemed behavior.  But they do create the conditions that ease trouble instead of throwing gas on what might well be a smoldering ember.  The girl was apparently quiet, if breaking the rules.  She deserved to be treated restoratively.  As do they all.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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New Year’s Resolution: Take the Time to Restore Kids’ Lives

Published by EducationNews.org — Do we leave problems to fester, or do we put in the effort, unpack the problem and come up with answers?

helping_kids

A few years ago a kid we’ll call Leon transferred from a big urban district to the small, even poorer district where I consult on restorative practices.  As a 7th grader, Leon was small for his age and scrappy.  When not disrupting class or wandering the halls, his head was firmly on the desk.  He did zero work.  By December he was no longer a mere “frequent flier,” but the number one champ of discipline referrals.

Such kids drive dedicated urban teachers to cruise job postings in suburban towns and to demand “alternative placements” for unwanted kids.  But no one learns community-appropriate behavior when segregated in a behavior-disorder classroom, a residential facility, or a prison.  But what to do?  The choice seems to be either wrecking that kid’s life by kicking him out or wrecking the learning environment of the other kids — never mind driving the teachers nuts.

But this middle school’s bold principal stepped into the fray.  A committed, experienced Restorative Practioner (RP) herself, she had established a restorative-practices implementation team to work on climate-and-culture issues.  While Response to Intervention (RTI) and special education teams address the needs of individual kids one at a time, an RP team supports the health of the school community as a whole.

Ideally, the team creates restorative solutions to prevent anticipated problems like tardiness or class-cutting.  But sometimes the “frequent fliers” consume so much community attention that they need concentrated help as a group.  So, the principal asked the RP team to assemble all possible information on each high-maintenance child.

The team member assigned to Leon knew his mother was hard to reach.

Mom works, and was royally sick of getting calls from the school.  Still, the team needed to know what he was like at home.  Might there be a relative, a neighbor, or family friend who could help Mom?  Does the family have any social services already in place?  If so, what?  Did Leon’s teachers have any theories as to what might be up with him?  And lo: one teacher suggested he might need glasses.  Ultimately, that piece of intel was the key that unlocked the mystery.

But getting anything done beyond the school walls is way easier said than done.  Some enterprising school nurses might have personal relationships with outside providers, but schools don’t have optometrists on call.  They refer such matters to the parents, hoping they have insurance, willingness and capacity to pursue the issue.  If not, though, good luck navigating the hurdles presented by public-service bureaucracies and insurance companies.  It’s not really the school’s job.  But in collaboration with a local private social-services organization, the RP team helped Mom sign up for a program that could arrange an eye test.

Sure enough, Leon couldn’t possibly see the board in class, never mind tease out the tiny letters in a book.  But optometrists don’t just give out glasses, so the team had yet another hurdle to clear — which they somehow did.

And Leon’s discipline referrals full-on stopped.

This story is only unusual because of its extremes.  Leon’s infuriating disruptiveness ended abruptly when he could finally use his eyesight.  More typical are serious behavior problems with roots in trauma, neglect, and family dysfunction.  The Herculean efforts of the RP team managed a stupidly-quick fix for Leon, but trauma cases are harder and far more tangled.  But solutions will never be found, leaving the problems to fester, unless someone puts in the effort to unpack the problem and come up with answers.

All schools need an RP team seamlessly connected to outside agencies focused on mental health, housing, physical health, juvenile justice or whatever is needed.  I suspect that in my state, Rhode Island, the bureaucracies are especially insulated from one another.  But I don’t think it’s common that teachers work closely with non-school social workers.  Kids’ lives are not divided by sectors.  Some need diverse teams.

Leon’s issue was resolved with a bit of medical help and then a way to pay for glasses.  That it was so hard to accomplish wasn’t the school’s fault.  It’s just not their job.  But enough troubled behavior can bring teaching and learning to a halt.  RP teams might have to help the whole family become healthier before the child’s behavior improves.  But schools tend to live in little worlds of their own.  Confidentiality, funding, policies and fiefdoms prevent disparate agencies from working together to restore a kid’s life.

There are no bad kids, only bad behavior.

Before the RP team went on its forensic search, Leon was essentially being punished for poor eyesight.  Similarly, traumatized kids are punished for not having a better response to their trauma.  Troubled behavior will not respond to carrot-and-stick discipline tactics.  Somehow, someone needs to stop the assembly line to give significant time and attention to some kids’ problems and more time working on solving them.

That requires time, labor, and resources.  Redeploying existing outside services to help schools would be best.  But organizing that would be a big lift — even though it would save tons of time, money and misery in the long run.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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