Alternatives to *no excuses* discipline exist, but they don’t come cheap….
By Corey Gaber
The typical *woke* person’s evaluation of the behavior management landscape is that we suspend and expel too many kids. We suspend more than 3 million students a year, twice the level of suspensions in the 1970s. And we suspend kids for less and less severe actions, most famously in no-excuses charter chains, for doing things like singing Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror in the Cafeteria. As has been well documented, we teachers and administrators issue consequences in a racially-biased manner.
But removing a student from school rarely benefits the student. In fact it often hurts their long term academic prospects. They miss valuable class time and teacher support, which puts them in a tough position to catch up whenever they do return. They often harbor feelings of resentment, embarrassment, and/or confusion about the suspension, combined with their academic falling behind can lead to further acting out. Finally, suspension is unlikely to address the root problem that led to the behavior in the first place.
That said, here’s the thing that progressive educators don’t like to talk about: there is a point where removing a student from the learning environment does benefit everyone else. The learning of an entire class can be derailed by a single student, and allowing that student to remain robs others of an education, and sends a message about just how porous or firm your boundaries are as the leader of your classroom. Which raises a big question. When a student needs to be removed from the learning environment, if not suspension, then what?
Which raises a big question. When a student needs to be removed from the learning environment, if not suspension, then what?
Restorative Justice Practices
One alternative is an idea so radical that you should grab a seat before reading any further. Are you ready? Wait for it…wait for it… You actually…talk to kids. Restorative justice practices ask that when it comes to student discipline: *Lower-level offenses can be redirected to the justice committee, which is made up of student mediators, with school administrators and teachers serving as advisors. The goal is to provide a nonconfrontational forum for students to talk through their problems, address their underlying reasons for their own behaviors, and make amends both to individuals who have been affected as well as to the larger school community.*
This is not a hippy, pie in the sky notion. It’s a structure that has been implemented for many years across a variety of schools, with often dramatic decreases in suspensions and student misconduct, in addition to improved social skills and overall school climate. So why haven’t more schools adopted this student centered strategy? It takes time, for one thing. As one expert puts it: *you can’t crash-course your way through restorative justice…One PowerPoint training won’t produce a transformation in school culture.*
Then there’s a little thing called an investment of resources. The long term transformation of a school culture requires a substantial investment in time, space, resources, and salaries (referred to going forward as $$$$$) The International Institute of Restorative (IIRP) Practices’ Whole School Change (WSC) program requires purchasing multiple texts, posters and other materials for every staff member, gaining access to a video library, paying for an IIRP leader to lead multiple professional development sessions, and provide ongoing consultation to school leaders. This is worthy and important work, but it isn’t cheap, and it’s a difficult commitment to make when principals are struggling to keep staff and manageable class sizes as their budgets are cut.
School Counselors, Psychologists and Administrators
Even without total discipline restructuring, there are other ways to simply talk to kids about the source of their behaviors without suspending them. This is why school counselors, psychologists, and administrators exist. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough of them. At a Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPSS) Board Meeting on December 8th, a 12th grade student at Digital Harbor High School shared how difficult it was to get the support she needed from the school counselor. Not because the counselor wasn’t hard working and great at her job, but because the volume of students she was responsible for was overwhelming. Board members proceeded to question the ratio of students to counselors at Digital. BCPSS Commissioner Thornton shared that a 200/250-1 ratio is considered good, despite the fact that Digital had a 100-1 ratio, and STILL lacked the ability to give students support when they most needed it!
God save the schools who only have a *good* ratio. Furthermore, many schools only have counselors who serve half days, who split their days between multiple schools. How much disruptive behavior could be proactively eliminated with an adequate amount of counselors? Although, guess what getting an adequate amount of counselors and other well trained adults, with their deserved salaries and benefits, working full time in school buildings would require? You guessed it, more $$$$$.
Meanwhile, far from getting more personnel, schools are cutting teachers and aides to stay within their revised budgets. Note: Thanks Governor Hogan. When class sizes increase, and support staff decreases, there often is no adult available to thoughtfully de-escalate with a child who has been removed from the classroom. In this situation, suspension is the easiest and least resource-draining response, even for teachers and schools whose values align with restorative practices. When an under-resourced environment is overwhelmed by the needs of the students, the practical will win out over the philosophical.
In this situation, suspension is the easiest and least resource-draining response, even for teachers and schools whose values align with restorative practices. When an under-resourced environment is overwhelmed by the needs of the students, the practical will win out over the philosophical.
What if we started partnering with non-profit organizations who can help balance the needs vs. resources scale? The Family League of Baltimore harnesses the assets of the surrounding neighborhood in order to create better supported community schools. Sounds great, is great, and yet again, such partnerships are only made possible by more funding. The cost of a community school coordinator is $75K a year, $20K of which the school is on the hook for. What school has $20K just sitting in the bank these days?
Teacher Training/Recruitment and Cultural Competency
Middle class, and particularly middle class white teachers and administrators, working with poor black and brown children, face a gap in cultural knowledge and understanding. This results in bad behaviors, a normal happening for all middle school aged children, to be interpreted as the aggressions of a dangerous child. Furthermore, educators can take this behavior as a personal attack against them (which I’m guilty of earlier on in my career, and still today in the hardest moments). Under this mindset, when teachers check misbehavior, they may turn to sarcasm, anger, or small insults, that provoke and escalate even more disruptive behavior. So there is often as much need for a teacher to be mentored and to go through anti-racist training as there is for a child to have a place to talk.
We can also bypass filling in white people’s cultural gaps by recruiting teachers from and of the communities we teach in. Student effort and achievement is often driven by their relationships with their teachers, and it is easier to form a stronger relationship with a student when you see them as part of your personal community. Jose Vilson’s experience echoes my claim, and notes how vital it is for students to see immediate models of success that look like them and share a common culture. Stronger relationships with students who can look to you as an immediate role model → less behavioral outbursts → safer, more academic space for students → less suspensions.
Sadly, people of color, and Black men in particular represent 3.7 percent of teachers in Maryland public schools. And nationally, no more than 2 percent of teachers in the nation’s public schools are Black men. Again, this set of solutions returns us to a similar problem. Intensive coaching, cultural competency coursework, studying the impact of black male educators on student outcomes, and recruitment of more teachers of color costs more $$$$$.
Mo Money, Mo Problems?
To the folks who say, *well we already give Baltimore City Public Schools lots of money,* or, *money is wasted on that bureaucratic black hole* [not an accidental metaphor], I, and a glut of peer reviewed research, declare bullshit.
To the folks who say, *well, we already give Baltimore City Public Schools lots of money,* or, *money is wasted on that bureaucratic black hole* [not an accidental metaphor], I, and a glut of peer reviewed research, declare bullshit.
We have NEVER fully funded the schools of impoverished brown kids to the level needed to create common outcomes with their affluent white peers. Baltimore’s elite independent schools charge between $25,000 and $27,000 in annual tuition, and that’s for educating kids who are not living in deep poverty, who have access to plentiful resources at home, and who have opportunities for enrichment in their communities. Baltimore City must make do with approximately $10,000 less per child, and yet many of the powerful and politically connected private school parents have the gall to say we’re properly funding public schools in the city. The *money doesn’t matter* echo chamber is loud and persuasive, despite being demonstrably wrong.
Which leads us back to the original question: when a kid needs to be removed from the learning environment, if not suspension, then what? Whether we’re talking about philosophical shifts in student discipline policy, increasing staff, mentoring educators, anti-racist training, non-profit partnerships, or the studying and recruitment of more teachers of color, you won’t interrupt the student to prison pipeline without a significant increase in funding.
Until we give public schools the resources to provide an excellent and holistic education, we’ll continue to blame individual educators and children, instead of the institutions that create the circumstances for educators and students to be their worst selves. And our most vulnerable children will suffer the consequences.