“Restorative justice” practices have reduced school suspensions, but also have resulted in unpunished bad behavior, said the president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. The school superintendent, however, wants to address discipline problems at the “root cause,” and not take students out of class for minor offenses, The Buffalo News reports.
The Buffalo Public Schools, like many districts across the country, has seen a push away from authoritarian discipline in favor of such “restorative” practices as dialogue and mediation. But Buffalo Teachers’ Federation President Philip Rumore said disruptive or even violent students are being sent back to class with few or no consequences. “When you send a student back to class,” he said, “the message goes out to the rest of the class that that behavior is OK.”
School Superintendent Kriner Cash has a different view. “We have a significant challenge with disproportionality here,” Cash said, referring to the high number of minority students who have been suspended.
George Mason University Economist Walter Williams rejects the idea that the racial disparity in suspensions is caused by shortcomings among the teachers rather than disparate behavior among the students. In a column published earlier this year, Williams cites a March 14 report by Max Eden, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Eden quotes a Buffalo teacher who was kicked in the head by a student. “We have fights here almost every day,” the teacher said, and students taunt the teachers with the words, “We can’t get suspended.”
Williams asks how restorative justice policies that prevent motivated black students from learning, differ from policies that would seek to sabotage black education by making it impossible for schools to remove students who make education impossible for everyone else.
Some argue that punitive discipline systems that disproportionately affect minority students should be challenged and a new, restorative culture, should be built in place of the old, punitive one—a culture that is stronger than mere techniques and training.
Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture founder James Davison Hunter, in his book The Tragedy of Moral Education in America, points to the fact that it is not techniques that are of first importance, but a moral culture. “In such settings, people will not merely acquire techniques of moral improvement but, rather, will find themselves encompassed within a story that defines their own purposes within a shared destiny, one that points toward aims that are higher and greater than themselves.”
Moving away from punitive systems of discipline is hard work culturally. It takes time to reshape the assumptions of teachers and students alike, and failure to lead that cultural transformation will produce frustration. The State of Illinois offers a guide to implementing restorative justice. For school systems that are going to take the long road to restorative practices, it is worth investing the time and energy to do it well.