Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Guest Blog by Mike Schirtzer: On School Discipline

Mike Schirtzer wants me to leave the ed notes blog to him in my will so he can retire and live off the income. In the meantime I offered him co-blogging rights when he has something to say, which is all the time. Mike, who became a fan of restorative justice, puts things in perspective in the context of directives from the DOE. On Friday, Arthur also did a piece on RJ: Restorative Justice? Maybe Sometimes, but Not Always

On School Discipline
By Mike Schirtzer
UFT Executive Board HS Division

I’m here to restore faith in Restorative Justice. So let me start with putting blame where it always belongs, with the bureaucrats who have spent little, if any time in the class-room.

The DOE passed another mandate telling schools to bring down suspensions by implementing restorative justice or Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS)practices. Like Common Core, ESL reform, special education reform, and everything else, it is yet another unfunded mandate.

There are zero professional developments for staff, administrators or deans. They were handed a new code of discipline and told “here ya go, good luck!” and sent on their way. Along the way many of our union sisters and brothers decided it was tree hugging, sitting in circles crap. Maybe they are correct in some cases because how poorly this has been implemented.

Some schools made a half-hearted attempt at social justice. Some
principals, having no real understanding or interest in providing needed support, just tossed it at the staff and turned their backs, guaranteeing failure and often mockery by the teachers. When it didn't work they threw it away.

Most schools didn’t even try, applying the traditional formulas: Deans know how to suspend. It’s what they do. It’s what they’ve always done. Teachers, paras, counselors, administrators, hell, even the secretaries know the drill; if a kid does something wrong, call the dean, have him (mostly boys) removed and suspended. That’s the way it’s always been and that’s how it should be. And it has always worked…...

But wait has it?

Statistics overwhelmingly show that the children being suspended are predominantly African-American and Latino. Schools that were closed or still considered “bad” schools have been suspending children for years, as long as I’ve been going to school here.

It has not worked. Those students ended up in prison or on the streets, and the schools were closed down. Suspension has not worked in 40 plus years. So let’s keep doing what hasn't worked? Don't forget. Einstein's supposed quote that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

That makes no sense. Maybe it is time to try something new, something different. No, we don’t have to sit with marshmallows over a fire singing Kumbaya, but we can think of different ways to deal with the “bad” kids. It’s 2017 after-all. We’ve changed the way we teach, learn, communicate, get our information,  and now is the time to change the way we discipline kids.

My friend who teaches at a rather large high school had an incident where a kid came in to the school’s auditorium talking on his cell phone while a bunch of students were completing their ESL test. He also referred to that group of kids in a nasty manner, called my friend a “moron", refused to give up the phone, nor identify himself and walked past him and other teachers until the dean caught up with him.

Yes, he was suspended. My friend says he deserved to be because he interrupted the exams that the his students were taking and that’s not fair to them. My friend is a great teacher who cares deeply about his students and would never allow another student or any person to do anything to harm them. Obviously, this is the type of teacher we want all our children to have. But he said he is open to better ideas than suspensions. So allow me to explain the alternative.

Suspending this boy is supposed to show him and others that this type of behavior is unacceptable. It is also supposed to deter others from doing the same. I wonder, will this stop this “bad” kid from doing something else like this, or will he become a repeat offender? Will the child be able to make up for the lost class-time? Is it possible this child needs every bit of time he can get in class, instead we showed him the door. He made fun of students that do not speak English as a first language.

I have a feeling this suspension will not make him change his views or make him treat other kids better. I’m sure he will never treat my friend any better and this suspension may backfire and make him hate teachers even more. Maybe this kid figures out staying home is a whole lot easier than all that school work. Maybe this kid never shows up to school again, maybe he comes back and treats all teachers even worse, or maybe he ends up being an angel and the suspension was a total success, though I really doubt that.

Here could have been the alternative or what we call “restorative justice”. The dean would have pulled him into his/her office. There would have been some cooling off time. Sometimes that’s an hour, sometimes it’s a day. The adults can decide based on the individual circumstance. A counselor or social worker would interview the boy and make sure everything at home is OK. Who was the kid on the phone with anyhow? Sometimes when kids act up at school it’s because they are having issues at home. Sometimes anger at an adult at school is really about anger at an adult at home. Next, the counselor would check what’s happening at school. Was there a test the student didn’t feel ready for? Are there academic issues? What is this student's academic and behavioral history and has anything been done to address it? All of this could have been followed with a restorative justice circle and/or peer mediation. The child could have met with the my friend and a neutral third party (students that are trained or a fellow teacher trained in RJ practices) where they will discuss what happened and why it was wrong. A consequence, such as an apology letter to the teachers and students that boy offended would be one “punishment”. Another could have been peer mediation where that boy has to meet with one or several of the students taking the test. The students could have explained to him why they need silence when taking the test and why it’s not funny to make fun of those that speak English as a second language. They could have shared their challenges in school and in life, finding out they have more similarities than differences.

Maybe this “troubled” student would come to see the world differently by talking to the teacher and students that were harmed by his actions. Maybe the boy would come to understand how his actions affect others. Maybe the boy would even go on to become friends with some of those he made fun of and wave hello to the teacher in the hallway. To take this to the extreme maybe the kid won’t miss class-time, drop-out, or end up prison. Maybe I’m wrong and the kid will end up doing the same crap all over again, but it seems like after years if kids being suspended, schools being closed and the ever expanding school to prison pipeline, now is a great time to give this a try.

But first a caveat: We would have to actually fund these programs, with training, RJ coordinators, more counselors and social workers. The deans have to be retrained to de-escalate and work with RJ practices. This would have to be done the right way with time and money invested it into it, not just another policy from above.

Since I’m a social studies teacher I always like evidence based arguments. Well I dare anyone to check out the statistics or talk to staff at Roy H. Mann Junior High school, Bronx Academy of Letters High School or Brooklyn Expeditionary Learning High School. I have been to them all and looked at the stats: suspensions are down, graduations rates are up, teachers and parents feel the schools are safer, and it is a better atmosphere.


Chaz said...

Restorative justice is crap. Sure the vast majority of suspensions are Black and Latino boys. That's because they tend to have no male role models at home and disrespect adult authority. Moreover, the NYC schools are majority minority. Finally, I have been in some of the Restorative Circles and the students walk out without any consequence and are dumped back into the classroom to continue their disruptions.

Mike, you are in a selectily screened school where maybe the few students who misbehave are subject to peer pressure to behave. However, in unscreened schools the opposite is true. Many of these students are looked as rebels and leaders to the student body.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this Mike! My note about the city and state piece that Arthur originally linked to--it was written by an E4E member. I'm just going to leave that alone for now. Our members and their students have lots and lots of ideas about what investment in RJ in schools should and could look like. Here's a 5 minute video for anyone who is interested!: If you watch the clip, be on the lookout for an excellent cameo performance by Matthew Guldin, who will be quick to tell you that he won a Drama award at Lincoln H.S. back in the day.