In Burien, Washington, elementary students begin their day with greetings, handshakes, eye contact, and polite questions. This activity is a cornerstone of the district’s impressive record of reducing discipline referrals—down 43% from 2014 to 2016—and suspensions and expulsions—down 70% in the same period.
But although the disciplinary overhaul at Highline Public Schools—a racially diverse district south of Seattle—has drawn praise, it has triggered criticism from teachers who worry that they weren’t trained adequately in alternative approaches to discipline. Teacher turnover has jumped, according to the Hechinger Report.
Some teachers say the changes happened too quickly and that classroom discipline has suffered. A high school special education teacher reported that students became more disrespectful after the threat of out-of-school suspensions diminished. And in-school suspensions rose dramatically as the number of students being sent home shrank.
Discipline is one of the most vexing issues for administrators. Schools often fail to initiate the teachers through formative practices, according to the Hechinger Report. At Highline, the district didn’t provide much guidance for how newly hired re-engagement specialists were expected to run their classrooms for students suspended in-school. Even where there is broad agreement among faculty and administration that a school or district needs a better formative culture, building that culture is slow and hard work.
This seems to be a challenge across urban, suburban, and rural contexts. In a chapter of The Content of their Character, a forthcoming publication from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, field researcher Richard Fournier observed: “Fragmentation also existed in the moral messaging between teachers and students, primarily as a result of the refusal or inability of school cultures to agree on deep, specific ethical and moral guidelines on serious social or academic issues that students encountered.”
At Highline, the district has committed to building a strong school culture. The superintendent acknowledges missteps but is committed to staying the course—for the good of teachers and students.
Administrators who want to lead that sort of cultural change in a district or school are not without resources. The state of Illinois has published guidelines for implementing restorative justice in schools, and the International Institute for Restorative Practices offers graduate degrees, continuing education, and licensing opportunities.