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Another Voice: Restorative practices are better than student suspensions

By Lori DeCarlo

With school suspensions on the rise across the country, it is time to rethink how we discipline our students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 3.5 million students are suspended annually in the United States.

Research shows that with every suspension, there is a strong likelihood that the student will drop out of school altogether. It should come as no surprise then that dropouts are more susceptible to being incarcerated. We can and must do better to reduce the number of suspensions.

There is a trending shift away from traditional discipline of suspending a student to a “restorative justice” approach that addresses specific incidents of student misbehavior. This approach serves as an alternative to automatically suspending a student and taking the student out of a school environment.

While the phrase “restorative justice” classifies a response to a singular incident of wrongdoing, “restorative practices” is a form of restorative justice involving focused strategies, such as community-building circles, to resolve conflicts and help students understand each other.

Restorative practices can build a school’s culture from the classroom level up, strengthening relationships in a way that changes students’ attitudes and dramatically reduces incidents of misconduct. To be effective, however, restorative practices should be led directly by teachers and counselors, not from the top down.

Teachers, counselors and support staff should also explore utilizing restorative practices in addressing serious behavioral incidents. When such an incident occurs, a conference circle is used, where both the individual who has been harmed and the individual who has caused harm are given support and guidance from third parties to reach a resolution on how to repair the harm, in the form of a written agreement between both parties.

Based on my 30 years of experience in education, I never would have predicted that some of the more serious issues we have experienced in our school district would be effectively resolved through the use of conference circles.

Implementing restorative practices builds an environment of support and a culture of care that meets human needs on a very profound and powerful level. It is a truly incredible way to repair the harm of misbehavior and restore a student to good standing.

In this day and age, educators need to rethink the way discipline is conducted in our schools and seek solutions that benefit both students and our society in the long term.

Restorative practices as an alternative to suspension is something all educational leaders should consider implementing.

Lori DeCarlo is the superintendent of Randolph Academy Union Free School District.

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