Schools ban suspensions after success with restorative justice
(N.Y.) Reports of thousands of students ages 3-7 being suspended each year in the United States has prompted numerous districts to adopt restorative justice practices. Most recently, New York officials are taking it a step further by banning suspensions of young students outright.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in late July that schools would be barred from suspending pupils in kindergarten through second grade—similar to action taken earlier this year in districts in Texas and Missouri.
Prior to this recent proposal, de Blasio began exploring restorative justice practices and announced a plan last year to introduce them in schools.
“In elementary school, exclusionary discipline relates to out-of-school time and loss of in-class learning, which we know even in kindergarteners can lead to poorer academic performance,” Trevor Fronius, senior researcher at WestEd, said in an interview. “There’s a move away from exclusionary discipline and toward preventative disciplinary actions that keep kids in school.
“Restorative justice practices are just one of the tools or techniques that schools are starting to use or implement more broadly across districts,” he said.
Decisions to revamp disciplinary policies have been driven by state and federal reports regarding high suspension and dropout rates. Chronic school absence has regularly been linked to low academic achievement, high dropout rates and increased likelihood of contact with the juvenile justice system by reports from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education.
According to the Department of Education, almost 7,000 preschoolers were suspended during the 2013-14 school year.
Many studies have also found that zero-tolerance policies, which often lead to higher suspension rates, tend to disproportionately affect children of color or those with disabilities. For preschoolers, the Department of Education found that black students were 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.
In New York, more than 800 students in kindergarten through second grade were suspended last year, often due to “insubordination”—a catchall term for instances in which students defy or disobey school employees.
Such policies, according to a press release from de Blasio’s office, factor in to why students of color and students with disabilities represent a disproportionate portion of those who face suspension.
“Schools and districts are starting to be held more accountable for their discipline practices, especially when it’s disproportionately affecting certain groups of students,” Fronius said. “It’s starting to land on the national agenda, and that’s really contributing to this move.”
New York is one of a handful of states in which plans to ban suspensions followed the implementation of restorative justice tactics.
Districts in cities including Denver, Oakland and Minneapolis have been implementing restorative justice practices for a number of years, according to Fronius.
In 2014, Minneapolis Public Schools’ former superintendent Bernadeia Johnson banned suspensions for the district’s youngest students after finding more than 300 first graders and kindergarteners had been removed from class the prior year due to disorderly and insubordinate behavior.
California enacted the nation’s first statewide ban on K-3 suspensions for “willful defiance” that same year. Oakland Unified School District had been using restorative justice practices for nearly a decade by that point.
Earlier this year, St. Louis Public Schools’ superintendent outlined changes to the student code of conduct, which included the elimination of suspensions for K-3 students.
One month later, a trustee from the Dallas Independent School District also proposed doing away with out-of-school suspensions for K-2 students, and said it should be a last resort for grades 3-5.
In addition to boosting attendance and addressing bias in disciplinary practices, Sarah Guckenburg, senior research associate at WestEd, said the desire to create a positive school climate also drives districts to adopt such policies.
“We know that restorative justice is used to deal with discipline, but it can also be used to promote positive school culture,” Guckenburg said in an interview. “It’s used as a way to deal with problems or issues that arise, but it also changes how schools and students have conversations.”