Changes ahead in school policies for discipline

By MAXWELL EVANS

Special to the Journal

LANSING — A sea change is on the horizon in how schools approach discipline, reducing reliance on suspensions and expulsions and helping students explore how to make good on their mistakes.

A 2016 law requires schools to consider restorative options before suspending or expelling a student, except where federal law calls for automatic expulsion. The law defines restorative practices as efforts that emphasize repairing the harm done by a pupil, both to the victim and to the school community.

Even before the bill passed, some Michigan districts, including Houghton Lake and Grand Rapids, were testing alternative disciplinary programs of their own.

At Houghton Lake Community Schools, that includes such practices as mediation conferences, where kids who’ve bullied or wronged other students can make amends face-to-face, and finding ways for students to build personal relationships with adults at their schools.

Houghton Lake had more expulsions than many other districts, said Joe Holloway, the restorative practices specialist for the district. Guided by a grant from the federal Healthy Schools, Healthy Kids program, the district in 2015-16 began to explore policies to keep children who’d gotten into trouble in school.

“We can’t educate our students in our curriculum if they’re not in our classrooms,” Holloway said. “That is what spurred us to make some of these changes proactively instead of reactively.”

Holloway, who worked in juvenile corrections at Turning Point Youth Center in St. Johns for eight years, said there are parallels between the restorative practices found in the education system and restorative justice in the legal system.

He said that whether a young person misbehaves at school or gets into legal trouble, a basic truth ties them together: relationships need to be built to stop that negative behavior.

“Students want to be cared for, students want that connection,” Holloway said.

In the wake of the recent shooting that left 17 dead at a Florida high school, restorative practices could help districts point troubled students toward assistance to prevent future tragedies, as well as place schools on heightened alert, said Greta McHaney-Trice, executive director of Resolution Services Center of Central Michigan, based in Lansing.

“Now everybody is pointing fingers and going, ‘God, but if (accused shooter Nikolas Cruz) had had the possibility to mediate his concerns with facilitators’ — and I don’t know that he didn’t, but it doesn’t sound like it — ‘some of that might have helped,'” McHaney-Trice said.

Restorative practices can prevent the persistence of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” according to Charles Hobbs of Street Democracy, a Detroit nonprofit that provides legal services to the homeless.

“The school-to-prison pipeline is essentially schools using discipline to enforce rules upon kids that they feel are problem children, and it forces them out of the school,” said Hobbs, who is Street Democracy’s senior staff attorney. “The evidence shows that once they’re out of school, the likelihood of becoming entangled with law enforcement or legal issues is much higher.”

A December 2017 study from the “Urban Review,” a peer-reviewed journal, noted that students who receive harsh punishment have an increased risk of dropping out. They also tend to have lower self-esteem and face increased chances of contact with the criminal justice system.

In response to those trends, a coalition of eight organizations — Street Democracy included — penned a letter to Michigan educators offering assistance to schools seeking to modify their policies to follow the restorative practices law.

The letter suggested that schools implement a 60-day limit on all suspensions not involving firearms, give students educational services during their suspensions and take a community-based approach to restorative justice.

“To be fair with the schools, they have a really hard job,” Hobbs said. “They have to not only try and instruct and educate the future citizens of this country, but also to help them learn social behaviors as well.”

He said he understood that it could be a “slow-moving process” to update school handbooks to follow the 2016 law, but that the change was necessary — and a long time coming.

“The culture of the school environment is now changing,” Hobbs said. “They’re starting to realize that pushing students out of school is not helping anybody.”

Yet there are signs that restorative justice isn’t ready to be a permanent fixture in the educational system.

The same “Urban Review” study that detailed the negative effects of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies also noted a significant increase in harsh discipline over the past three decades.

The Resolution Services Center’s McHaney-Trice said much of the resistance stems from an incorrect belief that such tactics let students get away with misbehavior.

“People think, ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, you do the crime, you do the time,'” McHaney-Trice said. “Punishment is well ingrained in our mindset in the United States of America and in Western civilization.”

Houghton Lake’s Holloway said as his district was implementing its restorative policies, teachers “came in with preconceived notions” that such policies focused too heavily on emotions and feelings.

Within his district, there was a fear that restorative practices meant “the punitive portion of our discipline policy would go away,” Holloway said. “That’s not true. For restorative practices to be effective, there needs to be an equal amount of carrot with an equal amount of stick.

“We’re trying to change behaviors and we’re trying to keep students in the classroom, but at the same time, to change those behaviors there has to be some kind of consequences,” he said.

McHaney-Trice said other barriers to the success of restorative justice in education include a low teacher retention rate, which decreases the chances of meaningful relationships between faculty and students, and lack of funding for such programs as many districts struggle to provide educational basics.

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