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To Keep Kids Out of Trouble—And Prison—Teach Them to Understand Their Emotions

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A restorative circle at MetWest High School in Oakland, Calif. Image by Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth and Oakland Unified School District.

After teaching students to understand and talk through their conflicts, schools in Denver and Los Angeles have seen major reductions in disciplinary action.

By Katherine Gustafson

After the shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre famously suggested that we arm police officers in elementary schools to help “good guy[s] with guns” defeat “bad guy[s] with guns.” While the idea of turning our schools into the backdrop for a war-zone video game is alarming enough, the call for militarization of classrooms threatens to entrench an even deeper dysfunction in our school system, one that threatens students’ wellbeing from inside the school walls.

Suspensions fell 40 percent in Denver Public Schools after the district started using restorative justice practices.

For decades, many of our nation’s schools have instituted zero-tolerance disciplinary policies that criminalize what used to be considered minor infractions and send scores of young people—especially young men of color—into an involvement with the criminal justice system that in many cases will continue throughout their lives.

The “good guys with guns” in these schools are on-duty police officers, otherwise known as School Resource Officers. Their presence ups the disciplinary ante, increasing the likelihood of suspensions, citations, and sometimes even arrest. Instead of studying, our students are increasingly spending time in suspension or in prison cells.

A concerned group of educators, citizens, and philanthropists is raising the alarm about this epidemic of criminalization, which these advocates of change call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” They are calling for for an alternative to these punitive practices, namely the institution of mediation methods that help students learn to deal with their emotions, talk about their problems, and confront the consequences of misbehavior in a supportive environment.

Strong evidence is piling up that their approach improves behavior while reducing the need for punishment.

“Not all troublemakers”

The iron-fisted disciplinary practices employed in many public schools can be traced back to another school shooting: the 1999 rampage in Columbine, Colo. In the aftermath, school districts influenced by the “broken windows” policing philosophy popular in the mid-1990s—which clamped down on minor crimes in hopes of preventing major ones—instituted get-tough approaches to student misbehavior.

“You can’t say that a majority of African American kids in the state of Texas are just bad kids.”

The result has been a major increase in disciplinary action that disproportionately affects students of color. A landmark study published in July 2011 by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments and the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University found that in Texas almost six out of 10 public school students were suspended or expelled at least one time between seventh and 12th grade. The study also found that 89 percent of African-American boys and 74 percent of Hispanic boys had received at least one discretionary violation—that is, a violation of the school’s code of conduct—compared to 59 percent of white boys. The same pattern, though with lower numbers of violations, held for female students.


Source: Council of State Governments Justice Center and The Public Policy Research Institute, Texas A&M University

“The Texas report revealed that the number of suspensions has exceeded any kind of common sense,” said Kavitha Mediratta, program executive for children and youth at Atlantic Philanthropies, a grant-making organization that works to improve opportunities for disadvantaged people. “We’re not just talking about disciplining troublemakers. With numbers like that, they can’t all be troublemakers. You can’t say that a majority of African American kids in the state of Texas are just bad kids.”

She worries that calls for increased presence of law enforcement in schools in the wake of the Newtown tragedy will only compound this problem.

“There’s been concern that we’re just going to be increasing arrests for silly things,” she said. “Like the police officer tells the kid to take off her hat, and the kid mouths off, and suddenly the kid has a summons for obstructing government action.”

Promising alternatives

Proponents of alternative approaches to keeping order in schools support various interventions, most of them based on an approach called social and emotional learning, or SEL, which develops students’ skills in recognizing and discussing emotions, relating to and empathizing with others, and defusing and resolving conflict.

In many schools with high rates of suspension, the SEL-aligned approach of choice is “restorative justice,” a concept common to many indigenous traditions that focuses on integrating wrongdoers into the community and reciprocally addressing conflict, instead of meting out punishment.

“SEL teaches kids in a preventative, upfront way how to manage conflict and build positive relationships with their peers, and to be more self-aware and more empathetic,” Mediratta said.

That’s not to say it’s easy. Ke’ara Smith, a 14-year-old eighth grader at Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland, Calif., who was trained as a peer conflict mediator as part of Oakland Unified School District’s Restorative Justice Program, has found that students find it difficult to talk about their emotions during the restorative justice process.

“It’s sometimes a little stressful because there are people who act like they don’t care,” she said. “But they do care. They just don’t know how to express their feelings toward the mediation.”

She says that many students resist the intervention at first, but soon realize that talking about their problems in a safe environment is helpful.

“It’s like if you’re having a problem and you can just talk to somebody who has the same problems you’ve been through and is the same age as you and is in the same grade,” Smith said, “it’s easier to talk to that person than someone who’s never been through this experience before.”

Creating safe spaces

Such approaches, whether led by trained peers or adult conflict mediation specialists, are not designed to let students off the hook, but instead to have them confront their behavior and learn to change it in an environment that allows for mistakes.

“The kids are not the problem; the problem is an education code that looks like the penal code.”

“While of course you need to respond to misbehavior,” Mediratta said, “the question is how do you respond to it in ways that re-engage kids.”

A common practice in this context is “restorative circles,” in which students and teachers come into a circle to “witness” a student’s disruptive actions. They ask the student to explain his or her misbehavior in class and how they can support him or her to prevent it from happening again. They ask how can they can  restore the equilibrium that was thrown off by the disruption, resulting in apologies or other actions to restore trust.

Stella Connell Levy, president and executive director of the Restorative Schools Vision Project—a human rights organization that uses restorative justice to keep kids in school when they make mistakes—emphasizes that the circle and other such activities come to function as “safe spaces.” Such spaces are reserved for students to work through their issues without fear of retribution. In these spaces, students can discuss their problems before they end up expressing them in more damaging ways.

“It creates sort of a ritual and a special space that the children come to understand very quickly, that can be the major source of prevention of harmful behavior,” Levy said. “The circle is a space that is safe, nonjudgmental.”

Most importantly, these interventions do not come across to the students as punitive, but instead are focused on problem solving.

“It’s not a courtroom,” Levy said. “It’s not trying to find out who the guilty person is, but how enlisting all parties there can help figure out a solution.”

Sparkling moments

The shift to restorative practices is occurring in school districts around the country—most notably in Chicago, Denver, Sacramento, San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles—with notable results. Suspensions fell 40 percent in Denver Public Schools after the district started using restorative justice practices. In L.A., there was a 20 percent drop in suspensions over a two-year period.

“The kids are not the problem; the problem is an education code that looks like the penal code,” Levy said. “SEL, through restorative practices, gives teachers and administrators an option besides punishment.”

She remembers an incident in which a third-grader stomped on the foot of another boy. The teacher responded not by sending the offender to the principal’s office but instead by pulling him aside and asking him whether he was jealous of the boy’s shoes or mad at the boy.

The foot-stomping student answered no to both questions, Levy said, but then “He just looked up and said, ‘I’ve just been really upset lately.’ The teacher asked, ‘How do you think Isaac felt?’ And he said, ‘Not good. May I apologize?’ He went over to the boy’s desk and said, ‘I’m so sorry for what I did.’ And then Isaac burst into a huge grin. That was all. It was a simple thing. But to me it was a sparkling moment.”

Such sparkling moments, if students experience them consistently enough from early on, can become the basis for building a supportive school climate and supporting students’ mastery of self-management as a way to reduce their engagement with law enforcement.

“To me, the beginning of the pipeline starts in the first day of school in kindergarten, when the child gets the message ‘I am bad’” from being punished, Levy said. But when the response acknowledges the goodness of the student and treats the behavior as a separate problem, the child gets a different message. Then, “you are able immediately to enlist the person—the wrongdoer—into being part of the solution,” Levy says. “He becomes the engineer of the solution.”

And student-centered solutions—not more police officers—are what our schools most dearly need.

Katherine Gustafson wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions for a just and sustainable world. Katherine is a freelance writer and editor with a background in international nonprofit organizations. Her first book, Change Comes to Dinner, about sustainable food, was published in 2012 by St. Martin’s Press.

Council of State Governments Justice Center is an Atlantic grantee.