Editorial: Maybe it is time to change how students are disciplined

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

When it comes to getting in trouble at school, all types of images come to mind. There is that dreaded sit-down with the principal, or a detention that never did seem to turn out quite like “The Breakfast Club” sold it, or even an in-school suspension, which would leave you with an in-hot-water conversation with your parents.

Those are time-tested punishments that are almost baked into the American education system. But there are some suggesting that we turn down the heat on the oven. Or, at least, that has been the general impression many people have gotten when it is suggested Lawrence schools consider a concept called “restorative justice.”

The concept of restorative justice — or sometimes called restorative practices — has been floating around Lawrence for a few years now. While it has some pockets of support, it is an idea that hasn’t really gotten much traction. For some, it just sounds too New Age and like a prescription to create soft kids who turn into soft adults. For others, there may be skepticism based on where a large number of its supporters reside. Justice Matters has been a major proponent of restorative justice in the school district. Justice Matters is full of good people, but it is basically a faith-based organization, and some Lawrence residents are going to be skeptical of such an organization getting involved in public education.

But for lots of us, we simply don’t understand what anybody is talking about when they tout restorative justice. That may begin to change, though. There is a sign there might be a new champion for the idea. Superintendent Anthony Lewis told the Journal-World this week that he likes a lot about the concept.

Lewis was instrumental in bringing restorative practices to the Kansas City, Mo., public school system, where he was an assistant principal. Importantly, he’s an educator who can begin to educate the rest of us on what restorative justice may look like in Lawrence.

In one way, it looks like a caring adult.

One of Lewis’ mantras has been that every high school student should have at least one adult in the school building whom they can feel comfortable with. That’s an example of a restorative practice, and it also is an example of a good goal. The education system can become too focused on teaching to a test or making sure this or that academic standard is met. Academic learning is critically important, but the lesson of how to build and maintain relationships is one that students absolutely will use every day of their lives. And in high school, who doesn’t need an extra adult to lean on now and again?

Another example of restorative practices is the idea of a “classroom circle.” Many of the elementary schools in Lawrence now start the morning with circle time. Students are encouraged to respond to a prompt, such as “How was your weekend?” or “What’s on your mind?” Yes, “circle time” does sound like an exercise where a verse of some folk song may break out. But the underlying idea of getting students comfortable sharing and communicating is a good one.

Many times the idea of restorative justice is associated with how schools handle discipline. On this front there probably is a need for more real life examples of how the concept would be deployed. It is important to have a disciplinary system that reinforces the idea that actions have consequences. The real world certainly will emphasize that concept. But it also is worth thinking about whether the consequences meted out by today’s disciplinary process actually resonate with some students. It is possible that an out-of-school suspension is exactly what some troubled students are hoping for. It may be more productive for them to have to face those they have hurt and explain their actions.

More information and more thought are needed on that topic. Hopefully Superintendent Lewis will keep the community engaged on the issue. It is an idea worthy of more discussion — although, hopefully we don’t all have to stand in a circle and hold hands.

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