When Rachel walked into my office, she was holding the side of her face. The nurse came in and cleaned up any open wounds she saw. The whole time Rachel sat there quietly. I asked her if she wanted any water or needed anything. She told me, “no.” “What happened, Rachel?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said in a sigh. “I just told her I didn’t want to be her friend anymore.” I thought, what kind of friendship does this? I remember seeing my first fight as a teacher. I just froze. The girls were on top of each other, pulling hair and scratching each other in the face just because one bumped the other in the hallway. All the classrooms emptied at the sound of the thuds and the screaming. The other kids tried to keep back the adults so they could watch the fight. Finally, the dean and school safety were able to break through and separate the girls. Even as they were being physically separated, they continued to curse each other out. Now, 18 years later, here was Rachel. Fighting. As I listened to her tell me the story of what happened between her and Jasmine, I couldn’t help but think, this is going to be her third suspension for fighting this year. This plan isn’t working for her. Suspending her the last two times didn’t have the impact that was desired. She just keeps fighting. What are we missing? I started thinking about how suspension changes student behavior and I couldn’t find an answer. Leaving a student unsupervised out of school does not modify behavior. Our goal needs to be to help the student address whatever the underlying issue is that causes the misbehavior. If a student is suspended from school, chances are that student is probably already in a position of academic risk. Suspension will cause this student to miss more schoolwork and fall further behind. So not only are suspended students missing a critical day of school, but now their grades and academic confidence will suffer even more. So, what might serve as a possible alternative? The answer has to be restorative justice. Restorative justice practices allow students to resolve conflicts with the assistance of a mediator that trains them on how to address and resolve the issue. For many students I believe this is an effective alternative to suspension. Restorative justice is being used more in city middle and high schools and, while students absolutely need to receive serious consequences for transgressions such as bringing weapons to school, I think this is a step in the right direction for city schools. Empowering students to address and resolve their own conflicts will teach them necessary skills they will need for adulthood. Restorative justice may not be appropriate for all situations, but it is a step in the right direction to get students to be more reflective about their actions and how these actions impact others.
An original version of this post appeared on New York School Talk.
Ingrid Lafalaise is an assistant principal at a New York City high school and has been an educator for over 15 years. She has designed and taught curriculum in multiple content areas including math and science. Ingrid has also worked on the development and alignment of science standards at both a city and state level.