[Hall Monitor] What We Talk About When We Talk About Safety and Discipline

Note from SA Charter Moms: We are proud to share guest posts from hallmonitor covering San Antonio’s public schools.

Restorative justice supplies

When I first started reporting on school discipline, I thought there was near consensus on the need to move toward restorative practices. Just like there’s near consensus that you shouldn’t scream at your kids.

Restorative practices seek to move kids toward the behavior you want, with less emphasis on the behaviors being left behind. At the basic level, through positive reinforcement like the popular positive behavior intervention systems (PBIS) which catches and rewards kids for modeling good behavior and making good choices. At the deeper, more transformative level, such as restorative “circles” where kids share their motivations and wounds and anxieties, you’re giving them the tools to choose that behavior for themselves. You’re helping them cultivate a peaceful existence through self-awareness and executive function.

Sounded good to me.

It only took one reported story to see that not everyone agreed, and then in March 2018 San Antonio ISD trustee Ed Garza confirmed it from the dais when he said that the district’s teachers were very much divided on the issue of whether zero-tolerance (immediate expulsion, suspension, etc.) policies should be the norm.

Listening to the panel of school discipline reform experts at the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar, I began to understand more about why we can’t seem to find consensus. When schools switch to restorative practices, they are keeping kids in the classroom who are disruptive.

This change is “undoing 25 years [of thinking] that the way of doing discipline is to throw kids out of your classroom,” said researcher Abigail Gray of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

There’s a lot of fear among teachers that if kids get a whiff of weakness, they will run rampant. This is evident in situations where restraint and seclusion are used as well, especially on students who receive special education services, said Denise Marshall at the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates speaking in a later panel. Ultimately, much traditional classroom discipline is about maintaining control, Marshall said, it becomes about “I’m not going to let Johnny control my classroom.”

Some, third grade teacher Ashley McCall said, aren’t convinced that teaching includes teaching behavior. Rather than take the time to help students learn constructive habits, some teachers refer students to the office, “because the most convenient and comfortable thing was to send you elsewhere,” McCall said.

When a school adopts a restorative discipline model, such as Lamar Elementary or the Advanced Learning Academy in San Antonio ISD, the biggest threat is lack of buy-in. For this reason, the panelists agreed, top down mandates don’t usually take. They last as long as the principal is forcing the issue, and are out with the next wave.

Michael Mulgrew has heard some complaints. As president of the United Federation of Teachers he’s monitored school discipline initiatives that run the gamut.

“We have the ‘suspend everyone’ folks in our society,” he said, “and we have the ‘suspend no one.'” Communication is always key, he went on to say, because someone will always be disappointed.

For every parent furious that their kid was suspended for “nothing” there’s a parent who is irate that a kid is being allowed to remain in their child’s classroom. For every teacher who prioritizes tough love, there’s one who prioritizes trauma-informed care.

If teachers and parents can be persuaded on the merits of restorative practices, their buy-in increases the likelihood that a program will be 1) practiced with fidelity, and 2) long term.

It’s the spirit that counts though, not the exact implementation. Once a campus has decided to embrace the philosophy and goals of restorative discipline, Baltimore principal Rhonda Richetta said, each campus might do something a little bit differently. “Your tools can change as the people who are using them change,” she explained.

Getting teacher buy-in, however, seems easy when compared to getting parent buy-in. Because parents tend to move the conversation from “classroom management” to “school safety.” (Not that teachers don’t raise that concern. But parents are the school safety army.)

Back when the near-universal practice was to kick kids out, a lot of times the justification was that the students were “dangerous.”

So now, absent effective communication, parents wonder why “dangerous” kids are being left in the classroom. They feel their own kids are in harm’s way.

Now this I know a thing or two about. Because Facebook.

At various times and for various reasons over the past seven years, I’ve been added to the private Facebook groups of PTAs and other parent groups for various schools. Across the city, public and charter.

While I have access to these groups, I take note of the way people talk when they feel like they are in a semi-public space, guarded from the public eye but also speaking to unvetted members of the public. The great urbanist Jane Jacobs warned against semi-public physical spaces, for safety reasons. They are private enough to go unnoticed by police, but public enough that they cannot be secured. Inner courtyards, back alleys, pocket parks hidden from the street. I think the warning carries over to the digital space.

When they know their views would be immediately shamed or fact checked in a more open forum, bullies often show themselves in closed or private parent groups. At the same time, those bullies still feel they have to sell their point of view to the group, because they don’t know who among them shares their opinion.

So it’s the perfect place for angry parents to tell third-hand stories in an attempt to justify really vile words in the name of “concern.”

One thing I’ve noticed— particularly in schools where maximum inclusion (having students who receive some special education services in a general education classroom) is part of the restorative, social emotional learning environment—students being a “distraction” rarely stirs up the kind of support that would get a principal’s attention. However, a student “throwing a chair” seems to be the dog whistle for the whole anti-inclusion crowd. Once the student has made the classroom “unsafe,” the student is fair game.

I have seen some breathtaking stuff from full grown adults, y’all. Moms ganging up on students, calling names, racial stereotypes, you name it.

I don’t know why “throwing a chair” is such a common complaint, but it comes up a lot, and moves the conversation about discipline into a conversation about school safety. Where protecting our kids is worth any cost.

But what we know is that excluding that student (through suspension or expulsion) puts them on a likely path to far more dangerous behaviors, at school and in society. At the very least, it puts them on a path toward limited options for themselves. That student loses the protection afforded by an on-track academic career.

If that child is black, brown, or receiving special education services, data show that we are not as concerned about protecting these kids as we are concerned with protecting other children from them. As McCall said, “The reality is that protecting all kids does not yet mean protecting all kids.”

Originally published as “What we talk about when we talk about safety and discipline,” Hall Monitor, May 24, 2019

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