An article in today’s Virginian-Pilot (https://tinyurl.com/y8wdvyo2) informs us that “Virginia Beach schools see a drop in suspensions. But teachers feel less safe.” These changes have followed the adoption of certain disciplinary practices that have already been implemented in numerous other school districts throughout the country. Termed “restorative justice,” these practices seek to reduce the number of suspensions by employing alternative interventions. Such an intervention could range from a teacher-student dialogue to a more formal conference involving students, staff, teachers and family members; in any case, the goal is to encourage students to reflect on their actions, take responsibility for them, and resolve to be better behaved in the future.
Although the number of suspensions has gone down in the past year, this reduction has come at a price. According to the Pilot, “more than 1 in 8 teachers said their school did not provide a safe and orderly place to learn,” about double the ratio from the previous year. The article continues, “Some students are more comfortable acting out…because they’re not worried about punishment.”
Let’s have a look at the effects that these disciplinary policy changes have had in other school districts. In New York City, according to a study published by the Manhattan Institute, there have been fewer suspensions; however, there have been dramatic increases in violence, drug and alcohol use, and gang activity. Furthermore, the non-elementary schools with the greatest percentage of minority students have suffered the worst declines in climate. The same study reports that in Chicago, a teacher told the Chicago Tribune that the new disciplinary policies resulted in “a totally lawless few months” at her school. Says Max Eden, the study’s author, students in Denver threatened to harm or kill teachers “with no meaningful consequences” under the new practices. A teacher is quoted as saying “classes are being disrupted, student learning is being decreased…in all grade levels” in the Omaha World-Herald. In Oklahoma City, “Good students are now suffering because of the abuse and issues plaguing these classrooms.” (See the full report here: https://tinyurl.com/ybggk628.)
It is clear that these are not trends we would like to see in the Virginia Beach schools. Disciplinary policy reform for reducing the number of suspensions is a laudable goal. The challenge, as ever, is to reduce the number of disciplinary cases by getting to their organic causes. This should not be done at the expense of school climate and classroom safety. Let us work with the school administration, teacher advocacy groups, our elected officials, and other concerned members of the community to ensure that these policy reforms are truly in the best interests of our children and teachers.