Racially Sensitive ‘Restorative’ School Discipline Isn’t Behaving Very Well

The question is legitimate and racially neutral: Are schools racially biased in suspending a higher percentage of blacks if blacks commit a higher percent of actions that require the sanction of suspension? This seemingly benign question has become an incandescent conflict. The following post appearing on www.amgreatness.com begins with a chilling narrative about a fight outside North High School in Denver. A female student wrapped a bike chain around her fist to strike another student. Just before the attacker used the weapon, school staff arrived and restrained her, ending the fight but not the story.

Most high schools would have referred the chain-wielding girl to the police. But North High brought the two girls together to resolve the conflict through conversation. The American Greatness post states: “Feeling less hostile after figuring out the backstory, the girls did not fight again.” The article did not disclose how much time elapsed between the event and writing the article.

This alternative method of discipline, called “restorative practices,” is spreading across the country—and being put to the test, amid sharp increases in school violence.

The ‘restorative practices’ policies are ideological, and appeal to a cult-like group which finds harmony with the ideology. The article continues: “Long pushed by racial justice groups, the method aims to curb suspensions and arrests that disproportionately affect students of color. It replaces punishment with discussions about the causes and harmful impact of misbehavior. The hope is that students will learn from their misdeeds and form healthier relationships with peers and teachers, making violence less likely.”

Orange County, California, is expanding the program into 32 schools, and Iowa City has started its own. Many other large districts—including Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City, Miami, New York City, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Washington, D.C.—have introduced it in recent years.

American Greatness reports that: “Denver, which has pioneered restorative practices and inspired districts to follow its lead,” raising the issue that Denver, thus, seems to be a good venue to test the efficacy of the application of the ideologically driven policy. American Greatness raises the question: “Is the kinder approach working?” It answers the question with a definite “Yes and no,” claiming the answer depends on the eye of the beholder. “Suspensions have fallen significantly, in keeping with the intent of the changed discipline policy. But fighting and other serious incidents have not meaningfully declined, the district says. Other cities have reported similar outcomes, according to evaluations and school leaders.”

The reasons for the mixed results in Denver, where Latinos and blacks make up two-thirds of the students, and other cities are complex. Some teachers and administrators don’t buy the restorative philosophy. In schools struggling with low test scores and overcrowded classrooms, it seems like another time-consuming educational fad. And some students see a restorative conversation as an easy way to escape suspension rather than a learning experience.

The article offers this illuminating data. “In 2021, Denver expelled police, called school resource officers (SROs), from its schools. Late last summer, when Denver students returned to school buildings after more than a year of remote learning, the police were no longer there to help tamp down the violence. The outbreak in Denver was alarming. In just the first month of instruction, there were 102 student fights, 11 sexual assaults, eight assaults on staff and 29 weapons violations, including four loaded firearms and a stabbing of a student with a knife, according to Boardhawk, a news website that covers the district. Michael Eaton, chief of the Department of Safety for Denver schools, warned in November that he’s never seen such a surge of crime in his 10 years of service.”

School districts around the country had adopted “zero-tolerance” policies in the wake of the 1999 Columbine school massacre, handing out tougher penalties including suspensions for a long list of offenses, from talking in class and insubordination to gang fights. Violence in schools fell during the early days of zero tolerance along with a national decline in crime. Amid the inevitable excesses, such as elementary students suspended for playing with make-believe guns, one fact stood out: black students were being suspended at three times the rate of whites.

American Greatness offers a summarized history of the politics of restorative practices. “The Obama Administration took sides, launching more than 300 investigations, causing schools to change their discipline policies to penalize fewer blacks and Latinos. The Trump Administration rescinded Obama’s guidance as a misuse of federal power. Now the Biden Administration’s education secretary, Miguel Cardonais preparing new guidance that appears to be in line with Obama’s.

In a study of Denver’s K-12 schools, Yoli Anyon, a professor of social work at San Jose State University, found that black and Latino students were often punished more harshly than their white peers for the same offenses and were at greater risk for suspensions. But such findings of what the American Greatness article refers to, fairly or unfairly, as “subtle bias” have run up against a straightforward fact—black and Latino students get into more fights than whites and Asians.

Gail Heriot, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, says advocates wrongly dismiss evidence that shows behavior, rather than bias, better explains the disparity in suspensions. This is a inept way of stating that advocates are dismissive of evidence of behavior and seek out or create evidence of bias.

“Sometimes people simply neglect what’s clear from the data,” says Heriot, a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law. Heriot offers an explanation based on the current cultural climate: “It seems to me that woke-ism is a large part of why people reject the data.”

D&B Staff

Join the discussion

Further reading

Subscribe