We’re in the midst of making a shift at Bellingham Public Schools in terms of student discipline. It’s called Restorative Justice. And it’s getting good buzz (as you can see in this Seattle Times article and blog) – not in the flash-in-the-pan-trend kind of way, but in the Changing Practices Changes Lives way.
It’s getting a positive buzz for good reason. The basic idea is this: when a student misbehaves, instead of sending them off to detention, suspension or even expulsion, we hold them accountable for their actions. They are required to make it right with their “victim” and the school community (which can be another student, a teacher or anyone who was harmed intentionally or unintentionally). This helps students realize that their actions have an impact on other individuals and on the school community as a whole.
Restorative practices often lead the offenders to a place of dignity and a desire to do better, whereas punishment can lead to shame and a desire to give up or act out more. It also gives the victim the opportunity to be heard and receive restitution. Victims are usually left out of the suspension or detention process. It basically restores relationships where there has been harm.
In Bellingham, we have reduced the number of suspensions from an average of over 5 a day to 1.67 a day in the last 3 years. And the amount of time that kids are out of school due to suspension has been cut by over 80%. This helps keep students from giving up or dropping out, which creates better citizens and helps our society in the long run. Recent research also indicates that a “zero tolerance” culture is harmful to all students, not just those in trouble.
It’s not perfect– just ask our principals, who know it doesn’t always yield perfect results. But neither did suspending students who often spent their days out of school in less-than-ideal places. Suspension also tends to fall disproportionately on poor and minority students. We know this won’t solve 100% of school discipline problems, but it’s the right thing to do and our teachers and administrators are working hard to make it work.