School Suspensions Model the Wrong Behavior for Students

Published by — By our actions, we teach intolerance.


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 or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Instead of School Suspensions, Let’s Listen to Kids

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


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 or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Punishment is Not Discipline

Published by — The end result of bad discipline strategy is prisons stuffed with high school drop-outs.


Recently Eva Moskowitz took to the Wall Street Journal to blast New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for promoting what she calls “lax discipline” in City schools.  Her op-ed outright sneers at his efforts to expand disciplinary strategies beyond suspension.  As the founder of the Success Academies, famous for their high test scores and strict, traditional discipline, Moskowitz clearly feels she has the cred to malign discipline alternatives.

The problem is that she, along with so many others, confuse discipline with punishment and kicking kids out.  Discipline means to teach.  Yes, as a culture we’ve lost our compassion for children and developed zero tolerance for truly bad or even misguided behavior.  Suspensions teach intolerance of the behavior.  But where’s the lesson on how to behave cooperatively?  The practice sessions?  Is mere compliance good enough?

Moskowitz writes, “Suspensions convey the critical message to students and parents that certain behavior is inconsistent with being a member of the school community. Pretend suspensions, in which a student is allowed to remain in the school community, do not convey that message.”  The message is: you, Kid, are not welcome in our community.

Punitive methods ignore problems at the root of the behavior.

Punishing kids — yelling, berating, suspending — can teach some kids fear-driven compliance.  Certain kids become cowed into submission, which is convenient to authority figures, but disheartening.  Others temporarily stuff their desire to rebel and explode later on.  Still others get a whole lot worse right away.  Misbehavior often flags that the kid’s in trouble, so yelling at her misses an opportunity.  If Mom’s getting hit, or there’s no food in the house, Success Academies leave it to the kid to figure things out while hanging by the TV during a suspension.

Moskowitz writes: “Proponents of lax discipline claim it would benefit minority students, who are suspended at higher rates than their white peers. But minority students are also the most likely to suffer the adverse consequences of lax discipline—that is, their education is disrupted by a chaotic school environment or by violence.”

Agreed, disruptive behavior is a scourge on the schools.  It’s bad, getting worse and should not be tolerated.  But so much of it is learned and comes from home.  In order to avoid conflict, many parents don’t enforce bedtimes, homework, or chores.  Putting limits on violent video games?  As one parent told me, “I don’t roll that way.  He’d be so mad.”  So some kids come to school this side of feral, used to getting their way.  No question: something bold must be done.

Sometimes the only functional adults in a kid’s life are at school.

As research has argued for years, all kids, but especially “bad” kids, need to develop terrific relationships with caring adults.  Suspensions are fast and easy while creating relationships is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and therefore expensive.  Enforcing rules doesn’t require relationships; cooperation does.  Only the tugboat of a caring relationship can turn the Titanic of bad behavior.  Learning how to work well with others in a community setting is a critical skill for the low-income, minority children whom Moskowitz claims to hold dear to her heart.

In spite of the harsh stories about “no excuses” discipline, flocks of parents try to get their kids into such schools.  Last year Success Academies saw 20,000 applications for 2,688 seats in its 22 schools.  The test scores are attractive, but likely many parents are also hoping someone else will figure out how to teach their kids the discipline that they didn’t learn at home.   Success suspended 11% of their students last year, whereas the New York City public schools, where most Academies are located, suspended 4%.  Kick ‘em out; teach ‘em a lesson in intolerance.

Among the “lax discipline” techniques recommended by the Mayor are restorative practices.  Moskowitz says, “[Traditional] discipline also helps prepare students for the real world. In that world, when you assault your co-worker or curse out your boss, you don’t get a ‘restorative circle,’ you get fired.”  This is true.  But in the working world you’re an adult, not a kid.

What’s really lax is the ease of beating on a kid to get his compliance.  I marvel that few have a problem with “no excuses” schools being so proud of teaching compliance to children of color.  I see a this as a moral issue, given that middle class kids are more often coaxed into cooperation.  All kids need to learn to do the right thing because they see how it benefits them, and not just because it avoids emotional pain.

Sadly, building restorative relationships takes time.  And time costs money no one feels the taxpayer can afford.  Interestingly, the end result of bad discipline strategies — from harsh to neglectful — are prisons stuffed with high school drop outs.  Somehow we have no problem with finding tons of money for prisons.


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 or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Student Advocates for Better Discipline, Restorative Practices

Published by — When adults and students don’t take time to listen to each other, they can’t possibly develop empathy.


Xilian Sansoucy was hungry for leadership opportunities when she began her freshman year at Classical High School, an exam school in Providence.  “I think it’s exhilarating to present” in public, she said.  A friend pulled her into an organization called Young Voices (YV) which specializes in just that, nurturing student leadership. In collaboration with other student organizations, leaders from YV increasingly make themselves known and heard around the state, advocating for issues they’ve agreed are important. Sansoucy took to YV like the proverbial duck to water.

Young Voices’ training begins with gathering their new recruits into student-led workshops where they research a question and share their discoveries.  In one of these exercises, Sansoucy’s research on school discipline strategies revealed stark, even startling, differences between discipline at her old school, a private independent, and her new one, very much a public school.  She explains that as an Asian-American, she chose Classical for its student diversity and “to get opened up to the real world.”  Part of that real world is Classical’s traditional discipline system that relies primarily on suspensions and detention to control behavior.

She says, “But suspensions just postpone getting to a solution.  Then the student gets suspended again, and the problem still doesn’t get solved.  Some students like suspensions because they don’t like school.  So how are suspensions helping?”

The one time she remember a fellow private school student being suspended, he was completely out of control with rage.  She didn’t know why he was so mad, but he was calm when he came back.  His time away was more about cooling off than getting kicked out.

In the workshop on school discipline strategies, Sansoucy was able to put the words to her private school discipline: “restorative justice” and “restorative practices.”  If she misbehaved in her old school, she’d have to sit down with adults and discuss the issue until it was resolved or the circumstances restored.  Problems got solved and kids were less inclined to misbehavior.  So the disparities in approaches to discipline became an equity issue for her: her experience of private school discipline is that it works on teaching behavior with restorative conversations; public school kids get kicked out.

You and I might suggest that public school kids generally have more and tougher issues. Teachers have larger classes of these harder students.  Sansoucy would reject these circumstances as reasons not to give the students the attention they clearly need.  She feels that while public schools have many terrific teachers, they also tolerate teachers who just don’t care and who let their students know that.  When adults and students aren’t listening to one another, or don’t take the time to, they can’t possibly develop empathy for one another.  She believes that this lack of caring is feeds the punitive mentality.

Conversely, she feels that her private school teachers were so much more connected to the students that they noticed interpersonal tensions long before they festered into problems.  When a girl-fight did blow up into open argument, teachers sat down with them after school for as many days as it took to get to the bottom of the issue.  One girl was popular and the other resentful about getting left out of everything.  “We started to see them getting along again and hanging out.  I definitely believed that they (the private school) had the solution.  If they’d ignored the fight, it would have gotten worse.  The one girl was not wanting to come to school.”

Sansoucy says, “The downside is that restorative practices take more time and dedication from the teachers.  But it doesn’t have to be too fancy.  Being able to sit down in a circle with whoever has misbehaved, after school or in a classroom, doesn’t cost extra.  It’s just about getting people on board.  Once teachers and adults realize it’s more efficient, kids will stop misbehaving so much, and there will be more learning time.  It’s just a matter of helping them visualize how this will play out.  I’ve started spreading awareness of restorative practices.”

Already as a sophomore, this plucky young woman now goes out and speaks in intimidating circumstances.  She reports that her conversation with the Governor “was really nerve-wracking.”  Most recently she represented student voice in a speech to the annual Kids Count breakfast, easily the biggest political event of the year for those concerned with children and youth in Rhode Island.  Among her other remarks to them, she said:

“Currently at Classical, our discipline system has been very old fashioned.  But we can replace these punitive practices with restorative justice.  No student should be suspended for being tardy…  No student should have to get detention or suspension for something that easily could have been prevented by a simple talk with an adult, [allowing them to explain] why they had misbehaved, instead of expecting them to figure out for themselves what they’d done wrong.  If high school students are expected to behave like adults, we need to be treated like adults.”

She got a well-deserved standing ovation.  If she is the picture of future leadership, we might do very well.


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 or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

[Image: Peter Goldberg Photo]

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Give Students a Voice So They Can Improve Their Own School

Published by — Working on a system to help troubled students stay in school, but be accountable to the community.


Regina Winkfield, Principal of E-Cubed Academy in Providence, went into a minor tailspin when district budget cuts eliminated her Student Resource Officer (SRO).  Of course, SROs are a double-edged sword.  As police officers, carrying guns, they’re sworn to arrest anyone engaged in illegal doings, including fighting.  SROs contributed to America’s soaring suspension and expulsion rates.  But even if her SRO wasn’t a great solution, Winkfield wondered how she’d cope with the rough student behavior besetting her urban high school minus that help.

The answer to that question turned out to be the kids themselves.  But not according to any intentional strategy.  While learning about civic engagement and advocacy, E-Cubed students found their “voice.”  As Junior Roxanne says, “everyone is getting along better because we have more voice now.  We’re empowered to talk to the adults.”

About four years ago, an opportunity quietly emerged.  Two Brown University students, Scott Warren and Anna Ninan, invented what is now the national organization Generation Citizen (GC).  Distressed by young people’s bad rap for disengagement from their communities and from political life in general, the civic-minded pair had an idea: teach teens how governments make decisions by helping them work on their own community or social issues.  They recruited college-student volunteers, called “Democracy Coaches,” to weave civics lessons into discussions of what specific community improvement could be accomplished and how.

Twice a week, a Democracy Coach worked in John Healy’s history class.

The City of Providence had never painted crosswalks on the busy streets surrounding the relatively-new school building.  The school community had complained for years.  Crosswalks were a clear, modest ask.  With instruction, students understood the relevant powers that be and managed to guilt the City into doing its duty.

Winkfield rolls her eyes musing that kids accomplished what adults had failed to do, and not for want of trying.  That day, watching those workers paint white lines, a light lit for her.  Supporting students’ voice in practical matters not only got things done, but got kids engaged.  “After all,” she says gesturing dramatically at the school’s mission statement, “we’re supposed to be a student-centered community.”

In the fall of 2013, she dropped hints to students about tackling their high suspension rate.  The kids’ research found that in 2011-2012, their small school of fewer than 400 students had nearly 300 suspensions, or an average of 1.65 suspensions every day – the third highest rate in the district.

I spoke with a group of these newly-engaged citizens about their accomplishments.  Now a University of Rhode Island student, Garren Jansezian took time off his spring break to crow with his younger colleagues about their impact on the school.  “We wanted to know what the implications were of those suspensions.  Was there a cycle of delinquency?  Were the problems of home being carried into the school?  We wanted to work on a system that would help [troubled] students stay in school, but be accountable to themselves and the community.”

Furthermore, after surveying their fellow students, they found that many had been suspended, mostly for petty vandalism, class disruptions, or tardiness.  Really?

Surely there were the alternatives.

The Democracy Coach gave them articles about other schools using restorative justice and peer mediation programs.  The students settled on starting a peer jury system designed to interrupt the zero-tolerance approach enshrined in the district’s Code of Conduct.  They developed a research paper, a process and several forms.

With their respectful voices and advocacy skills, they sold the idea to the principal, the faculty, and their fellow students.  They got the green light, but more impressively, 30 students applied to be peer jurors.

Angela, now a senior, took one of the first cases.  “(The student) had talked back to a teacher.  We all knew he’d done what he’d done.  Guilt was already determined.  But then the student was allowed to tell his side of the story.  We determined that the offense was not so severe that he should go to Ms. Winkfield for suspension.  Then we told him what he had to do to make it right.  At the end he said thank you.  I liked helping my peers not get suspended.”

In another case, a kid who trashed the bathroom avoided suspension by working with the janitor to get it cleaned up.  Yes, he was reluctant and resentful at first, but sucked it up and let himself be held accountable.  As Jansezian says, “Second chances are powerful things.”

Winfield concludes, “We needed a paradigm shift.  It’s easy to suspend a student, but it’s a lot harder to change a mindset.  For the students, it’s not about snitching, it’s about working together.”

Diana, a senior, says, “My mindset changed.  I look at people who do bad things over and over again, people I used to think of as bad.  Now I think, what’s happening to them that they’re getting in trouble?”

Fatoumata, a Junior, says:  “Voice is everything.  No matter how small, your voice has a deep meaning.”

For the record, they’ve only had one fight this year and a handful of suspensions.  With great pleasure, the students I spoke with took full credit for this minor miracle.  The adults beamed at 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 or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Create More Disciplinary Options Than just Suspensions and Cops

Published by — “You’re outta here” gets the problem off the school’s plate — and postpones any real solution.

If you look into school-suspension data — state or local — you’ll find a bunch of numbers that tell you nothing about the severity of the offenses.  You’ll find high rates clustered in vague categories like “disorderly conduct” and “subordination/disrespect.”  Those could mean anything from mouthing off to a teacher to stealing a cell phone.  And what do suspensions for “assault” mean?  Assault is an arrestable offense, as are stealing, possession of illegal substances, sexual harassment and others.  Not everyone knows that often schools often tuck low-level arrestable offenses into suspension data.

But what should a school do with such offenses?  Many would insist the police be called.  Yes, if the kid has been outright violent or has already thumbed his nose at second chances, schools have little choice but to call the cops.  But generally, when kids do largely stupid things, the last thing most educators want is to involve police.

Involvement with the justice system can wreck any kid’s future.  Colleges ask about convictions, for example.  Even when kept quiet, arrests have a way of becoming fairly public.  Court proceedings are hard to hide.  Higher-income kids might get costly lawyers to help them, but a low-income kid entering the judicial system can seal an ugly fate.  The justice system puts poor kids on the assembly line for future prisoners known as “the school-to-prison pipeline.”  Most urban school adults resist — thank God! — adding more misery to the life of a kid who was born without a break in the first place.

Two bad options.  Neither of which holds the kid accountable.

So, schools can:  1.  Kick the kid to the cops.  Really harsh.  Potentially devastating.  Or 2.  Kick the kid out on suspension, which is basically a vacation on a couch in front of a TV.

There’s a ridiculous gap between the two.  But all forms of kick-out culture are super convenient.  “You’re outta here” gets the problem off the school’s immediate plate and onto someone else’s.  It also postpones getting a real solution.  As problems grow, solutions get harder — stupid experimentation with drugs can grow into a tough habit to break.  So in the long run, kicking out can become wildly expensive.  Look no further than America’s prison system with its worlds-record-breaking numbers of inmates.

Conferencing assembles a crisis-intervention team.

Schools in Baltimore, MD, Oakland, CA, and elsewhere are starting to introduce restorative-justice “conferencing” as another option.  If the offenders and their families take responsibility for their actions and come to conference, the school won’t call the cops, for now.  Victims, when there are such, also must agree.  If the parties want police involvement instead, that’s their choice.  But international experience shows that conferences are highly preferable and cost-effective.

Conferences stop the assembly line to gather a small group of family and allies, and perhaps a social-service support or two, to unpack the situation.  How did we get here?  What’s going on at home, in the community, among the offender’s friends that she would come to school high or boost a kid’s laptop?  Conference participants help each other understand how to change the circumstances so the offense won’t happen again.

Ideally, the offender collaborates with parents, victims, and other participants to develop restitution plans.  When and if the plan is completed, congratulations Kid!  You’ve got a clean slate.

Currently, schools don’t have the capacity to do this.

The problem is that conferencing takes time and labor — and sometimes tons of patience with parents who prove to be a bigger problem than the kid.  A facilitator has to make the calls, get the participants clear about the rules and consequences, and then monitor progress on the restitution plan.  Hardest of all is building partnerships with community members and businesses to create restitution options.  If the kid punches a hole in the wall, best she learn to drywall and fix the mess she made.  Sometimes kids need a fat reminder they live in a community that doesn’t appreciate cleaning up after their messes.

Most schools are already stretched to the max.  In some countries, conferencing is run by police departments, but America’s police are generally so punitive we wouldn’t want them doing the work.  The press, researchers, and advocacy groups make a lot of noise about the school-to-prison pipeline.  It wrecks kids, after all, along with the future workforce and public-services budgets.  But few states or municipalities want to put resources into alternatives.

This is changing.  Recently the Central Falls School Department received a National Institute of Justice grant to get a conferencing system up and running.  They’ll collaborate on this with 4 schools in other districts.  I am intimately involved in this initiative.   We’re trying to design a system that holds kids accountable, but in a way that helps them not just stay out of trouble, but get onto a good track.  We can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing.  It wrecks kids.

Please, wish us the best of luck.

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 or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Our Punitive Mindset Blinds us to Effective Discipline

Published by — President Obama’s Executive Order — White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans — deserves a good, hard look.

Dear President Obama,Millions of us are encouraged by your demand that schools reduce suspensions for black males.

No research shows that suspensions teach kids the social skills they need to keep them from getting tossed out of school in the first place.  None.  Suspensions label a kid “bad,” which often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, even a badge of honor.  Students who already experience failure at school welcome a few days’ vacation on the couch with a TV.

But!  Beastly behavior in class ruins teaching and learning.  When feral or entitled children clown around, start fights or lash out at teachers with impunity, everyone suffers.  Teachers and parents of the so-called “good” kids feel that removing the disruptor is the only real weapon they have against chaos.

Here’s the over-arching problem:  We’re a deeply punitive culture.  We’re so zealous about our faith in the effectiveness of punishment, we don’t seem to care that research routinely argues that punishment doesn’t actually work.  It alienates the kids who most need help.  Trying to control kids’ behavior with external means — force, hurt, humiliation, school police — often backfires and makes things worse.  Even so, we take bad people out of their community, sequester them with other offenders, which makes them worse, only to send them back into a community that didn’t know what to do with them in the first place.  Makes no sense.

And yet we believe.

Because if we’re not punishing, we’re enabling.

Actually, enabling and punishment are two sides of the same harmful approach to kids.  American parents have become hopeless enablers.  They shield their kids from consequences, hoping to stay pals.  Good parents must be the bad guy sometimes.  It’s a ton of work and stress to teach kids that independence comes with responsibility.

Most people agree that enabling is harmful — when it’s other people’s kids.  We all detest entitled brats.  But unless someone lays a hand on her, we don’t question the harmful effects of cowing a child into compliance, controlling her by fear.

Punitive beliefs run so deep in American culture that even you, a credibly empathetic person, fall under the spell.  As President, you issued an order designed to curtail the punitive harm disproportionately meted out to black males.  It implied consequences.  But is punishing schools and teachers who are punishing the kids qualitatively different from banishing kids?

Or are we — even you Mr. President — taking the need for punishment so for granted that we’re fish not seeing the water?  America has the largest prison population in the world, both by rate and actual headcount.  We have 4.6 percent of the world’s population and 22 percent of the world’s prisoners.  Increasingly, we remand juveniles into adult prisons.

Between 1974 and 2006, school suspension rates grew from 3.7 to 6.9 percent, spiking around 1997 when the zero-tolerance policies were taking hold.

Meanwhile, the high-school graduation rate clawed its way up to only 72 percent last year, leaving many kids with poor prospects of ever engaging positively with their communities.

So I wanted to point out that the very reports that warn about the destructive effects of punishment often recommend restorative justice as a solution.  Few Americans even know what that is.  Internationally, restoration is huge.  Whole countries like Australia, New Zealand and most famously of late, Norway, have redesigned their judicial and social systems according to its principles.  I urge you to google it.

True, restorative justice does not satisfy our blood lust for revenge.  Instead, it holds offenders accountable by making them face the effects of their actions on their community.  Together, victims, offenders and the community negotiate restitution.  Low-level offenders can have a clean slate.  Some people are incapable of self-control and must be locked up.  Conventional judicial systems handle these cases.  Still, crime rates in these countries have gone down, as has recidivism.  The communities are healthier.

Conversely, in America, 60 percent of incarcerated juveniles are held for non-violent crimes.  Communities are struggling.

Over the last three decades many restorative initiatives have gotten started here, but faded away.  Punitive forces take over when a charismatic leader leaves or a grant runs out.  A striking exception is Vermont, whose restorative justice program, started in the mid-1990s, yields among the lowest juvenile and adult incarceration rates in the nation.

Instead of pushing kids out, restoration asks what could be pushed in?  What resources need to go into the homes, classrooms, schools and ‘hoods so every child will be warmly welcomed as emerging adult?

Imagine para-professionals working in classrooms – or families — teaching social skills where needed.  Parents quit enabling.  Disruptive kids learn community-appropriate skills.  Classroom communities learn how not to trigger troubled kids.  Removals might still happen, but the focus is still on getting the school, family or community to work as it should.

America spends 74 billion dollars on adult incarceration alone.  Better to spend some of that money to re-teach parenting, basic social skills and civilized negotiation.

As the President of the United States, you could help willing listeners to shift their efforts to restoring kids — to mental and physical health, to grade level at school, to good graces with the law.  Cultivate restorative practices, and suspension rates will drop like a stone.

Unquestionably, black males are most harmed by our punitive mindset.  But really, it’s bad for all of us.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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