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Trump Administration

If We Really Want to Make Schools Safe, We Need to Build Community

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently assembled a school safety commission that will explore the need to repeal guidance that helps schools discipline students without discriminating. Scrapping this tool for educators would be an unforgivable blunder that would actually make our schools more dangerous. Over the past few years, this guidance has empowered teachers to stem the school-to-prison pipeline by replacing exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions, with restorative discipline practices that hold students accountable to learn from and repair the damage they have caused. Discipline disparities between students of color and White students in Minnesota are severe, with Black students being eight times more likely to be suspended than their White peers. While there are circumstances, such as threats of future violence, where it is absolutely necessary for teachers to remove students from class to maintain safety, in most cases, we can better serve students by addressing their behavior without sending them out of class. Too often, research shows, suspensions and expulsions lead to students falling behind, dropping out and for many, coming in contact with the criminal justice system. What is worse is that a disproportionate number of students suspended in the United States are students of color, students with disabilities or students who identify as LGBTQ. In my experience, restorative practices are much more effective in correcting student behavior. For example, in my classroom, I recently had an issue with name-calling among a group of students. Several one-on-one conversations and a call home had not resolved it. It continued to distract and divide my class. So, I facilitated a "restorative meeting" to address with this group of students what was happening and to give them the space and tools to repair their relationships. All students were given the platform to explain how they felt and how they had been affected by the name-calling. Together we drafted a list of agreements that held the students accountable and then checked in often to see how it was going. When an issue arose, we revisited the norms. The agreements were highly respected by the involved students because they were created with their collective voices.

Community Building Over Exclusion

Educators in Minnesota have been at the forefront of this movement to put an end to racially biased, overly punitive punishments, using restorative approaches instead that preference community building over exclusion. For example, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers successfully pushed to get restorative justice grants into their 2016-2018 contract. Additionally, district leaders in both Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools have made changes, such as limiting the use of suspensions in early grades, moving their districts away from a heavy reliance on exclusionary discipline. In Columbia Heights, we’ve taken measures to restrict out-of-school suspension which is an important step in the right direction. Moving forward, I would also like to see my district provide more support to our students and staff with trainings on restorative and trauma-informed practices and time to review referral data. Embracing alternatives to exclusionary discipline practices is crucial for our students’ overall success, so training and support would go a long way in helping teachers learn more about how to implement these strategies effectively. In my school, we’re begun this work by taking an Intercultural Development Inventory, which helped each of us recognize our strengths and weaknesses in how we work with people who are different than ourselves. We’ve explored our own values and how they differ from those of our co-workers, such as how we respond to conflict. As a primarily White staff, this helped us reflect on what factors affect how we interpret student behavior and how we respond to it. School climate impacts students and teachers alike, and both need these types of trainings to help improve it. Not only does poor school climate negatively impact student achievement, research clearly demonstrates that it also leads to dramatic teacher burnout rates and low morale. The federal discipline guidance is one essential part of ensuring this remains a priority for state, district and union leadership. If we really want to make school’s safe, we must advocate for policies that supports educators in their efforts to serve all students and families.
Teresa Fenske is a teacher at Valley View Elementary School in Columbia Heights, Minnesota. She is on her school's equity team and is a member of Educators for Excellence.

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