Today, we know that the single greatest predictor of youth incarceration is a history of school discipline. This problem has come to be known as the school-to-prison pipeline and blame for it is squarely placed on the Zero Tolerance school discipline policies that arose out of the Reagan-era mentality of “just say no.” These policies called for harsh discipline for perceived school misconduct. Although enacted in good intention, they backfired. They bred insidiously an outcome quite outside the goal – again, the school-to –prison pathway and this has led to a schoolhouse-to-jailhouse crisis across the nation. In fact, the United States leads the world in the percentage of citizens behind bars.
Under Zero Tolerance, what was once considered “normal” youth behavior and misbehavior, became justification to criminalize conduct and exclude noncompliant students from the school community. Such automatic harsh consequences, irrespective of the severity of the misbehavior or the circumstances involved, proved disastrous. In enacting these policies, there was no consideration of their potential negative impact on the welfare of the offending student or on the culture of the school.
Even worse, the cost of Zero Tolerance is without benefit. No evidence emerged that zero tolerance policies made schools safer or improved student behavior. According to a 2008 Task Force Report by the American Psychological Association, Zero Tolerance policies failed to achieve the intended goal of creating an effective school discipline system. To the contrary, research repeatedly demonstrates that suspension, expulsion, and other punitive consequences are not the solution to disruptive or even dangerous student behaviors. What we now know is that dangerous students do not become less dangerous when excluded from appropriate school settings. Instead, it’s quite often the opposite – exclude and the safety risk escalates. Youth who are not in school are at exceedingly high risk of delinquency and crime which increases the danger to everyone.
And then there is the fiscal hit we take as a nation for every drop-out. Each year’s class of dropouts drains the country of more than $200 billion annually in lost earnings and taxes. Billions more are spent on welfare, health care and other social services that flow from the problem. Prison costs are an example. In Michigan, for the year 2013, we spent approximately $40,000 per prisoner annually, compared to about $8,000 per student. Clearly, it is much less costly and better for society to keep a student in school – to find a better way to address behavioral issues.
In part due to mounting societal pressure against harsh school discipline laws, Michigan’s Board of Education is seeing the light. In 2012, it asked districts to take a second look at their Zero Tolerance policies urging the abandonment of policies that exclude students from the educational process. Although the Department’s directive is advisory only, numerous districts have begun to replace punitive practices with restorative ones. Schools are shifting towards programs and policies that meet the developmental needs of youth. Punishment is giving way to practices that allow students to problem-solve, dialogue, and build positive relationships. We are realizing that to raise a healthy and productive member of society, we must provide meaningful, authentic opportunities for youth to be active participants in making decisions and resolving conflict.
Schools that are getting it are experiencing amazing results. Restorative justice works because these programs are centered on respect, responsibility, relationship-building, and relationship-repairing. The focus is mediation and agreement, as opposed to punishment. If a student misbehaves and a restorative justice system is in place, the offending student receives the chance to come forward and make things right. Instead of a culture of punishment and mistrust, it’s a culture of accountability and responsibility – and training youth to be correct in their behavior.
What we now know is that positive discipline produces positive behavior. Schools that embrace restorative justice initiatives have seen suspensions decrease by 50% or more, and disrespect for teachers has declined. Students are more focused on their studies and attend classes in greater percentage. The suspensions and expulsions which often led students to fall behind, drop-out, and enter the juvenile justice system, have subsided, putting a halt to the school-to-prison pipeline. As one educator has put it, the whole thing boils down to a shift in perspective. It’s seeing the truth that “My student is not giving me a hard time – my student is having a hard time.” Marvin Berkowitz, the Director for the National Center for Character Education preaches to teachers all over the country that “we can’t teach through a rat.” Personal turmoil, problems at home, lack of support, abuse, and neglect – these rats come right into the school with the child. Berkowitz says that to get anywhere with a youth, we must first address the rats. To ignore them is solid barrier to success. For change to take place, root issues must be exposed and dealt with.
Here at WMU Cooley, we are helping in this. A few years back, we designed a high school Peacemaking Court that has our students supervising high school students in resolving peer conflict and other misbehavior in a positive way – one which avoids punishment. The project, in place at Avondale High School in north Oakland County, is a partnership with our Auburn Hills campus. In the program, adults stand down. Instead, high school students (the peacemakers) trained and supervised by law students, work with their peer to correct behavior and repair any harm. Using a circle process and a talking piece, the students work to build trust with their peer and to create a safe place for honest dialogue. In other words, they give gentle nudge towards introspection and amends.
What typically begins as an intervention involving a closed-off, un-invested classmate, peer-to-peer, transforms into something very special. Typically, by mid-proceeding, comes recognition by the classmate that the care and support is genuine and the classmate starts to open up. It’s like the budding of a flower. Demeanor changes and the classmate is now leaning into the circle and making eye contact. Responses grow considered and thoughtful. There begins the hint of a smile and more smiles, and laughter often erupts as bonds develop. The armor loosens and the guard comes down.
With this transformation, the real work – the heart work – can begin. Tender inquiries probe for root issues and solutions, including what needs to happen to repair any harm. The kids who spin this gold? Again, their one very special qualification is their co-peer status and with it their ability to identify –truly identify with their classmate. They, too, are works in progress – far from perfect with many mistakes of their own – and a personal character still very much under development. Often they have experienced similar problems. They can relate and can empathize. By the same token, they can get very real very quickly and see past the malarkey. They have an uncanny knack for holding their peer accountable and for helping their classmate realize the errors in their ways and the harm not just to others, but themselves. It is peer-generated tough love at its finest. The cheering and support upon pivotal insights, and recognition, and oftentimes tough reality checks, come from the heart. And, from the smile on the classmate’s face, they are received in the same way. In these moments, hearts are expanding all around, in benefit of everyone. It’s the power of love – the true antithesis to exclusion and best remedy for broken soul.
Again, with peer peacemaking, what begins at opening ceremony as dubiousness and mistrust gives way to a kind of evident joy that only comes from being basked in the care and support of others. For every case we’ve held, the tide has turned for the classmate involved. Troubling history of suspensions and in-school detentions for defiant and insubordinate behavior, have resolved themselves into new friendships,(the peacemakers)and better choices – ones that are kinder to self and more respectful of others.
Perhaps best of all –every student that is the subject of peacemaking, becomes a peacemaker, paying it forward. One such student, who came into the peacemaking process with a terrible attitude and two year record of discipline to show for it, and who was referred because the school had exhausted all other options, was so changed by the experience that he advocates peacemaking as first stop for every struggling student. He feels that had this happened for him, things would have been different, much sooner. The high school is listening. Thrilled with the results of the program, they would like to have peacemaking available every day of the week and we’ll work hard to make that happen.
It’s been a terrific community partnership with what are actually unsurprising but extremely gratifying results, for all concerned. It’s a win-win for everyone involved. The law students are learning to question the effectiveness of a punishment-based system in favor of a more humane approach – one that actually seeks to change behavior and repair relationships. This s far cry from the law’s traditional focus on the offense, only, in disregard for any emotional factors involved.
The high school peacemakers are learning the same thing – that dispute resolution, in order to be effective, must be positive. Equally significant, in recognition that the role of peacemaker is an important one, which holds them out as an example, they have stepped up their own character accordingly. They have strived to become what they stand for. Their personal growth is also product of the trust placed in them by the school. After all, this program gives them a stake in their own school community – which in the past has been a rare, if not unheard of opportunity. It empowers them with a voice and a role in what happens with their peers. They feel important and valued to have this responsibility – all very good and very necessary stuff for best school culture. There is a third aspect to their growth – one that at first blush might come as surprise, but not when we think it through: the peacemakers are helped by their classmate. It’s like the bumper sticker about rescue dogs that wisely poses the question: “Who rescued who?” Take the time to help someone else – and your own heart expands. Look what it did for the Grinch: his heart grew three sizes the day he finally put others first. A program like this helps to build empathy and respect, extremely important traits for assurance of a successful democracy in a country that embraces capitalism.
For the classmate who is the subject of peacemaking, the impact of this program is first seen on their face, and then in their change. Another benefit, though, is that upon successful completion of any amends, no record is kept of the incident. This is how true second chances look. No baggage, no stigma, and no scarlet letter; just reacceptance and a fresh start. Equally beneficial, the classmate becomes part of the solution – serving as a peacemaker in future cases.
Our program has garnered both local and national attention and accolades. It received the 2012 Eastern Leaders Group Leadership Award and was the subject of lectures and instruction at the St. Louis, Missouri National Center for Character and Citizenship as part of their Carnegie Project for Social Justice. In addition, by request we have presented on the project at Native American Peacemaking conferences held in northern Michigan, sharing the information so that others may replicate the work. Next January, we will be presenting on the project at a national conference of special education administrators in California.