The Hard Work of Doing Right

There is a problem. A huge problem. According to 2014 data from the Department of Education, black students are suspended at rates that far outpace anyone else. While we usually start our blogs with some kind of cheesy anecdote that turns into a bad digression, this doesn’t feel like a topic that allows for one of Adam’s stories about peeing into the wind. It is not news to anyone who reads education blogs that black students are suspended at 3 times the rate of their white peers. And if suspensions are so drastically different, than it is probably fair to assume that students are experiencing very different realities in our schools. Often, their experiences are determined by the color of their skin. Suspension rates for non-objective behaviors, like weapons or drugs, are basically equal. However, when the behavior allows for some objective judgement, students of color are carrying the weight of our biases.There is no way to digest this kind of information with ease, and a recognition that our collective hands are bloody. This country is guilty of a lot of things, and the school experiences we allow for many of our black and brown neighbors is one of them.


As with any problem of this magnitude, there are a host of possible solutions. The one that seems to be getting the most traction, for good reason, is the idea of restorative practices in schools. According to Fania Davis, a civil rights hero and restorative justice activist, restorative justice “is an effective alternative to punitive responses to wrongdoing. Inspired by indigenous traditions, it brings together persons harmed with persons responsible for harm in a safe and respectful space, promoting dialogue, accountability, and a stronger sense of community.”

Fania Davis, and her sister Angela, are legends who have been screaming against the tragedy of our punitive justice systems for years. Our prisons have failed, and the Bureau of Justice reports that almost 7 in 10 prisoners released are arrested again within 3 years.

We have not been doing a good job of reintegrating offenders into a society that already failed them once, and it seems like our nation’s schools have been comfortable adopting a similar model. Schools across the country invested in “zero tolerance” without any real analysis of the results.

The numbers in our schools, as I mentioned above, are equally disheartening. Restorative practice offers some hope for a change that is more substantial than just trying to suspend kids less often. The issue is not that restorative practices aren’t good or necessary, but that we need more people willing to understand and approach this challenging and comprehensive task. There are too many people in schools who are comfortable with their 8-3 work day, and this work will take much more than that.

NPR has a great podcast named “Code Switch” which recently did a three-part project in which they followed Ron Brown Academy in Washington D.C. They spent months in the school of 100 black male students through the school’s first year of existence. Ron Brown practices restorative justice, with a goal of no suspensions or expulsions. While many schools continue with the remnants of failed “zero tolerance” policies, Ron Brown had no tolerance for suspension or pushout. To accomplish this, they employed a “care team” of 5 full time staff members to mediate and proactively address any potential problems. As with any school, they had some of those problems. In one episode, they tell a story of a student who punches a security guard, an action that would typically result in expulsion and criminal charges. At Ron Brown, it resulted in a remediation.

I wish the episode would have spent more time on this specific interaction, but I imagine a real look at something like this would take a whole season worth of NPR podcasts. The grunt work of restorative practice takes time, resources, and a willingness to change the way we think. In most any school in the country, an incident like this would be written up, the student would be sent out, and charges would be filed. The whole process would take a few hours for one school employee.

Ron Brown Academy was committed to asking that student two main questions:

  1. Why did you punch the security guard in the face?

  2. How do we restore you to a positive relationship with the school?

Answering those questions could take an entire 5 person care team the rest of the school year. And it may not even stop there.

Educators who are willing to ask the “why” questions and listen to the responses are opening up a whole world of possible answers. There could be complex childhood trauma, anxiety and depression, anger, substance abuse, bad experiences in school, and low self-efficacy among millions of other nuanced experiences. Most kids don’t simply tell you why they punched the security guard, because they have layered these reasons under all kinds of complicated emotions and fears.
Kids don’t normally punch security guards, or even other kids, for no reason at all. The question is whether schools have the time or the ability to get into the “why” questions and actually listen to the responses.

There is no doubt that schools need to be more restorative in their approach to basically everything. However, this effort creates the most work in the places where students are the most disillusioned with traditional education. In turn, as is often the case in our world, the places that are already the hardest are only going to get harder. It should change the way I approach the “I hate school” conversation that happens a few times a day. It mandates that I handle the disruptive student much differently. It seeks to eliminate the places where we have consistently pushed students away.

It changes the way I respond to the student who comes mid-year from juvenile prison with an ankle bracelet on and a disruptive chip on his shoulder. And while my response to that student is incredibly important, it also demands that we have the staff in place who are willing to embark on some really hard work. It’s going to require longer work days, and more importantly, a lot more people to carry the load. Restorative work in our toughest schools can’t be accomplished without the “care team,” and it is easy to see how they would stay busy.

Our current push for restorative justice in our schools is important, but society needs to accompany that push with a huge financial investment. Employees in schools need to accompany that with longer work days and harder work.

Redeeming our systemic sin isn’t easy, but it is necessary. And rewarding.