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Superintendent's Blog

Our Job is to Educate, Not Punish

Why do we think that punitive approaches to discipline will work? Consider this conundrum posed by Tom Herner about the role of an educator:

If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to swim, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to drive, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to behave, we... teach? …punish? Why can’t we finish the last sentence as automatically as we do the others?

That contradiction is hard for most of us to reconcile, and we are not yet on the same page when it comes to how schools should discipline children. More traditional, punitive approaches to school discipline are meant to punish undesirable behavior and discourage future misbehavior. Relatively new restorative practices focus, instead, on repairing harm, developing empathy, and reintegrating students back into the classroom and school.

As a society, we have been responding to inappropriate behavior with punishment for centuries. “Eye for an eye” is embedded in our biblical traditions. While penalties, for the most part, have softened over the centuries, infractions and punitive responses continue to belong together like “Crime and Punishment.” Punishment is reflexive, but is it effective?

Punitive practices include inappropriate use of suspension and expulsion, zero tolerance policies, and corporal punishment. In Colorado and across the nation, young students in kindergarten through second grade, especially special education and disabled students, are suspended and expelled in an attempt to deal with inappropriate behavior. A Chalkbeat analysis from May 2018 found that over 6,000 K-2 students in Colorado received out-of-school suspensions last year. A Colorado bill to curb the practice of suspending and expelling these young students failed last spring.   

Still commonly used in schools, zero tolerance policies--the application of mandatory penalties to specific infractions--have not resulted in the expected outcomes. A 2016 report from American Public Media entitled “Spare the Rod” detailed research showing that zero tolerance policies don’t make schools safer and are disproportionately applied to minority students. These practices were intended to result in fairer discipline for all but actually resulted in a wider racial discipline gap. Today, a black child is four times as likely and a Latino student is twice as likely as other students to be suspended.

Furthermore, these practices often have long-term repercussions. For instance, those who are suspended or expelled are less likely to graduate and more likely to wind up in the juvenile corrections system. In 2014, the federal government got involved by issuing a statement that districts that continue to have disproportionate discipline rates would face federal civil rights action. Further proving we’re not on the same page, just last week the federal government made a move to roll this back.

Though relatively new, restorative discipline represents an alternative approach to managing behavior and responding to conflict. It is already showing promising results, including reduced problem behavior over time, improved attendance, and enhanced student social-emotional growth and development. Restorative discipline is based on fostering relationships, strengthening understanding, repairing harm, and building strong communities. In other words, rather than responding retributively, restorative practices aim to teach students how to behave and how to repair when harm is done.

Restorative discipline begins before the moment when an infraction takes place. It requires building a classroom and school culture where relationships are at a premium, and where the development of positive social skills is emphasized. It requires establishing explicit behavioral expectations and teaching students what they are. Restorative discipline differs from traditional practices in that it increases accountability for offenders to understand the harm they have caused and take responsibility for their actions.

Restorative justice, from which restorative discipline evolved, grew out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa to try to repair relationships and restore society after the fall of apartheid. This framework was first used by criminal justice systems and has been adapted for schools over the last couple decades. The Roaring Fork Schools have begun to implement restorative practices. That doesn’t mean that there are no longer consequences to student behavior and actions. It means that we apply different and additional strategies to support a student before utilizing more traditional consequences.

This is a major shift in how we handle conflict and challenging behaviors. Like all change, we know it will take time for students, staff, and parents to adjust. But if we want our students to feel a sense of belonging in our schools, we need to make sure that we are teaching and supporting each other and not isolating or casting out students who may be struggling. Just like students can learn new responses to deal with their frustrations and challenges instead of acting out, as a culture, we can learn a better way of responding to challenging behavior.


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