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Communication, relationships are keys to better discipline

Identifying alternatives to suspensions, ensuring that teachers and other school staff have the training they need to effectively address discipline problems, and implementing restorative practices that build healthy relationships were all on the agenda at the AFT's "Educator's Summit on School Discipline."

Close to 200 teachers, school support personnel, mental health professionals, superintendents, community activists and others gathered in Washington, D.C., March 21-22, for the AFT's first-ever summit focused around school discipline and restorative practices. Speakers at the opening session dove right into some of the major issues surrounding school discipline, including the importance of creating a school culture and climate that's built on respect and communication—and works for both students and staff.

Restorative practices that help create a sense of community within schools and allow individuals who may have committed harm to take full responsibility for their behavior was a focal point of the discussion. Rooted in values that create positive relationships, such as dignity, respect, trust and care, restorative practices have been shown to reduce suspensions and expulsions in public schools.

Discipline summit

Some see restorative practices as an alternative to ineffective and sometimes biased zero-tolerance discipline policies. Suspensions and expulsions put students at much greater risk of dropping out and being prematurely involved in the juvenile justice system. "Zero tolerance is a trap door to the juvenile justice system," said Kavitha Mediratta, programme executive at the Atlantic Philanthropies, during the conference's opening session. "We need to be talking about what these alternatives look like. What does it mean to create a climate in schools where there is trust between adults and students?"

AFT President Randi Weingarten echoed those sentiments during a town hall on the first day of the summit. She noted that education is often about relationship building and helping kids survive the ups and downs of their schooling. When a student stumbles, "How do we give that kid the confidence to get up and walk again?" Weingarten asked.

Khalid Mumin, superintendent of schools in Caroline County, Md., recalled his own experience as a high school student who had to overcome his own youthful indiscretions as well as the attitude of some of his teachers. "You give up on no children," he said. "No matter what baggage children bring to the classroom, it's our responsibility as educators to educate them out of their situation."

Harry Lawson, associate director of the National Education Association's human and civil rights department, noted that both his union and the AFT have pivoted from their support of zero-tolerance policies. "It's about creating schools where our students are able to reach their full potential," he said.

One of the ways to help create that type of school is to ensure that staff hired to serve as security personnel are appropriately trained to interact and communicate with students. School security personnel often "don't have the training to treat students outside of a criminal framework," North Carolina high school student and town hall panelist Ramiyah Robinson pointed out. "That creates an unhealthy school climate."

Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis, whose organization has studied the connection between suspensions and the school-to-prison pipeline, said "implicit bias" is a major factor in the high suspension rates of students of color, especially boys. "We don't give black boys the same degree of latitude" when it comes to behavior, she said. "We gotta have these hard discussions" about discrimination.

Discipline summit

Statistics showing the high differentiation between the suspensions of white students and that of black and brown students make it clear that current discipline strategies are not working, said Weingarten, adding that educators and others should be advocating for new strategies and the resources to support their implementation. "If we don't advocate, we won't have the services we need for all kids."

Summit participants were made aware of various resources that are available to help educators and others implement restorative justice practices. A new guide, "Restorative Practices: Fostering Healthy Relationships & Promoting Positive Discipline in Schools," a joint project of the Advancement Project, the AFT, the NEA and the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, was unveiled during the summit. In addition, speakers from the U.S. Department of Education provided background on the school discipline guidance issued by their department and the U.S. Department of Justice in early January, which is designed to help schools administer school discipline without discriminating against students on the basis of race, color, national origin and other factors.

Michael Brunson, from the Chicago Teachers Union, urged summit attendees to not underestimate the importance of revenue when trying to implement restorative programs and other school discipline measures. "We are going to need resources to do this," he asserted. "You can't do it in a classroom with 40 students."

The summit included small group sessions where participants delved into issues such as engaging the community in school discipline issues and utilizing data to assess and improve a school's disciplinary practices. Several attendees stressed the need to train teachers and other school staff in discipline strategies, while others said it was important to involve students, parents and other stakeholders in the development of student codes of conduct.

High school student Carrington Taylor, the lead presenter at the summit's closing session, is active in programs that seek to address the issue of school discipline and implement restorative practices, such as the Dignity in Schools Campaign. Taylor, who attends Dewey Academy in Oakland, Calif., believes mutual respect and ongoing communication between school staff and students are critical to fostering a school climate where students feel valued. "It's easier to communicate with and educate a student when you make the effort to try to understand them," he said.

Linda Vila Passione, a violence prevention coordinator for the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, said she hoped the discipline summit would lead to additional discussions on the subject—and training on new and different strategies for improving school discipline. "I know what we're doing with our kids is not working," she said. "It's a revolving door. There needs to be a change in mindset."

[Roger Glass, Virginia Myers]

March 25, 2014