We’d been having a little bit of a suspension problem at my school. It felt like we had a secret police – students would just disappear and no one would know where they went, only to find out upon their return that they had been suspended. This breakdown of communication was bad enough, but then we would find out the reasons some students were suspended. Playing dice together in the stairwell? Yes, sure, gambling is frowned upon, but it’s not a suspension-worthy offense. It’s not even like it was a gambling ring – it was just three friends. Being suspended for being late? How does that even make sense?
As a believer in restorative justice, after I found out about this, I tweeted the following:
My friend Abbie disagreed, and we wound up having the following discussion, which I think was enlightening on both ends.
Abbie: I disagree. I was bullied severely in school as a child. Mental abuse is scarring and should be treated just as seriously and part of the reason it went on for years was because “they never touched her.” Bullshit. Mental attacks are violence.
James: I’m sorry you went through that. I’m not saying that mental abuse should not be taken seriously but that suspension is not the answer. In general, Restorative Justice is a more effective approach.
Abbie: I like the idea of such a program but I have serious doubts about the feasibility in many systems. Many of my problems were a failure of administrators to recognize or react at all.
James: But I guess that’s true regardless of which reaction is appropriate.
Abbie: I recognize there are many excellent admin & teachers out there. But my experience is that there are not enough.
James: Now that’s true.
Abbie: And I’m not sure, if I were in my mother’s shoes, that I’d have trusted the school to handle a public discussion. I guess my biggest frustration is that the response is to remove the victim from the situation. Maybe restorative justice can help that? If so it would be a welcome change.
James: That’s true. Even now, Safety Transfers (as per NCLB) remove victims, not perpetrators.
Abbie: It was one of my greatest frustrations with schools.
James: It must also be situational, as well – some have to deal with a reluctance to suspend or take action to support a victim, whereas I am seeing an overzealousness for suspensions in my school. I imagine there is some sweet spot in the middle.
Abbie: Hmm. Yes, that’s tough. It’s not a cure all by any means. My impulse is to always protect the victims first, but mindless suspensions won’t accomplish that. But asking the victim to relive the experience publicly makes me very uncomfortable. Either response extends the experience for them.
James: Well, publicly really depends on the situation. Restorative justice could be as small as one other person (a mediator).
Abbie: Mmmm. All depends on the mediator! If everyone’s trained and on board I could see its positives.
James: True! It’s certainly not an easy system to accomplish. That makes me amend my earlier statement that suspensions can have their place, but definitely not for victimless crimes.
Abbie: Very fair! I can easily agree with that.
Here we have two problems on opposite ends of the scale: a suburban (mostly White) school that does not take enough disciplinary action, and an urban (mostly PoC) school that takes too much. Which of course, is the story of our country.
After that, I ranted about it at the math department meeting and had the other math teachers (one of whom is a dean) bring it up in their grade team meetings, to push back against these policies. I don’t know how effective this was; I have noticed fewer suspensions since then, but correlation is not causation. However, Chancellor Fariña is pushing for a more restorative approach as well, so I have hope for the future. (At a recent meeting, one of the Deans made a comment about how we wouldn’t be happy about the upcoming changes – speak for yourself, dude!)