Detentions, suspensions, expulsions — these are the consequences that many schools provide in reaction to misdemeanors like drug abuse and disruptive behavior. However, these disciplinary practices can be counterproductive, as they often prioritize punishment over rehabilitation and leave students with little understanding of why their actions are harmful. Hence, restorative measures in schools are essential to ensure that students are appropriately counseled.
Since the 1990s, many public US high schools have applied zero tolerance policies to students caught using, harboring, or selling illicit drugs on campus. Substance abuse typically calls for suspension while the sale of drugs, alcohol, or nicotine products on campus can be followed by outright expulsion. These cutthroat policies punish all drug-related infractions identically, failing to address the potential influences behind students’ substance abuse and leaving them with the threat of further disciplinary action if they are caught selling again. This system perpetuates a “don’t get caught” mentality; rather than avoiding the infractions themselves, students learn to avoid the punishments, and are not pushed to consider the purpose behind these consequences. Those who are caught committing substance abuse should be counseled by qualified personnel, not simply suspended, expelled, or handed over to law enforcement as they are at many schools. In his paper “Beyond Zero Tolerance,” Rodney Skager, Ph.D — a researcher on substance abuse among youth — wrote, “For young people, actively making amends rather than passively enduring punishment is likely to promote positive feelings, rather than resentment and alienation toward school, the adults who work there, and the community.”
Those who are caught committing substance abuse should be counseled by qualified personnel, not simply suspended, expelled, or handed over to law enforcement as they are at many schools.
The failures of punitive action are not limited to behavioral consequences: exclusionary punishments also hurt students’ academic careers. Suspended students lose out on vital learning, such as lectures or labs, that they may not be able to make up. Furthermore, feeling silenced or misunderstood during the punitive process decreases engagement among punished students in school activities. According to John Gomperts, President and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance, an organization dedicated to helping America’s youth succeed, “When students don’t feel heard or understood, that leads them to check out and disconnect not only from school, but their future.”
To ensure that students feel heard and are encouraged to learn from their misdemeanors, restorative practices focus on transparency between students and faculty through extensive counseling, conflict mediation, and restorative talking circles. Rather than being suspended for insubordination, students take part in mediated discussions where they speak with everyone involved in the altercation and focus on restoring relationships with those affected by their behavior.
To ensure that students feel heard and are encouraged to learn from their misdemeanors, restorative practices focus on transparency between students and faculty through extensive counseling, conflict mediation, and restorative talking circles.
Proponents of punitive measures claim that the disciplinary nature of traditional punishment teaches accountability, whereas restorative justice encourages a cavalier attitude with slap-on-the-wrist consequences. However, restorative practices enforce discipline by helping students come to terms with their misdemeanors in a healthy, practical manner and smoothly integrate back into the classroom. While punitive measures focus on shaming students, restorative justice guides them to accept their wrongdoings and strive for self-improvement. Instead of disciplining students through fear, schools should take responsibility to ensure that all students who commit infractions have access to a safe environment where factors like their personal lives and the company they keep are taken into account.
Restorative practices aim to tackle difficult conversations and gradually define a school culture of inclusivity. Initiating faculty training to implement these policies, as MSJ recently has, is necessary to ensure that staff are appropriately trained to carry out restorative justice practices, like determining the role that a student’s personal life played in their misdemeanor and proposing a solution that will help the student find a healthier vent for their emotions. Restorative practices are rendered useless without a school staff that knows how to implement its policies to help students without allowing them to take advantage of the system.
With hopes to encourage healthy discussions, FUSD partnered with Fremont Police Department and the City of Fremont Youth and Family Services earlier this year to provide students and families with a constructive alternative to suspension for vaping offenses. Students can opt for four sessions with a program manager on the harms of vaping, with parents attending one session to learn how to support their children through the rehabilitation process. FUSD has also implemented the Restorative Circles program in which students sit in a circle with parents, admin, a counselor, and others affected by the infraction to openly discuss the motives and consequences of the student’s actions. By providing students with rehabilitation while circumventing problems caused by harsh punitive measures, these programs pave the way for reconciliation and foster a culture of trust. According to Assistant Principal Jeana Nightengale, most MSJ students facing suspension choose the program, and rarely do students commit second-time offenses.
By providing students with rehabilitation while circumventing problems caused by harsh punitive measures, these programs pave the way for reconciliation and foster a culture of trust.
In the same vein, eliminating the stigma surrounding high school delinquency is also key to allowing students to learn from their mistakes. Teaching students to isolate the infraction from the offender can help create a school environment that complements the restorative justice program. School administrations must discourage the alienation that often results from being punished, and instead spread a message of support to student bodies.