Over the past few years, my school, Brooklyn Center High School, has moved away from suspensions as a way to discipline our young learners. The impacts of suspensions were clear: our neediest students were falling further behind and excluding them did little to improve their behavior. But simply ending suspensions was not enough, as we had still not begun to address the root causes of students’ misbehavior. We needed to take a holistic approach to accomplish a real and lasting change. Along with limiting the use of suspensions, my school trained staff to use restorative justice techniques such as circle keeping and mediation to teach empathy and mindfulness to our students.
One of the biggest shifts in the way we think about discipline has been our greater emphasis on relationship building and de-escalation techniques to create a safe and supportive school environment. Building relationships and trust between students and the adults is one of the most important parts of my job. Students need to feel that no matter what happened yesterday, they can come back and get a fresh start. The adults have their best interest at heart, and we let students know they are allowed to mistakes.
As we began to implement restorative techniques, we gave students more opportunities to be heard and to share their views on what happened after an incident occurs. Some claim this approach does not hold students accountable. In practice, it is quite the opposite. Many traditional discipline methods, such as sending a student out, are one-sided. The adult is doing all the thinking and talking, while the student is banished to an oftentimes unstructured environment. I work on correcting the behavior of students first by allowing them to reflect on what happened. I acknowledge the students and the truths they told. Then I allow them to take ownership for their actions and help them understand that I will help them work through their behavior and repair the harm they have caused. When our first reaction is to send out or suspend a student, we miss an important opportunity for both teacher and student to better understand the situation and each other, and to repair and strengthen their relationship.
For example, we recently had a fight in the locker room that included multiple participants and observers. We held anyone who fought or watched responsible. I knew that if we didn’t use this as a teaching moment, many of the students would feel unfairly punished and wonder, “Why was that wrong? I didn’t fight!” I wanted to find a way to help them understand. I took a positive approach, using mindfulness techniques to get the students in the right headspace. Then I facilitated a cross-the-line exercise where I went through a series of personal questions to help them connect with one another. I wanted them to put themselves in each other’s shoes and see how the harm they caused affected others. It was a sobering experience for many students. These questions, such as, “How long have you gone to our school?” and, “Is anyone here someone else’s neighbor?” uncovered commonalities. They looked around and saw that we are a community. I asked if anyone had a family member who had been arrested or served jail time for violence, and all but two girls stepped into the circle. I asked them to look around at their peers — I wanted them to see each other as sisters. I asked them to spend a couple minutes thinking about how the arrests affected them and their family members. I ultimately wanted to take an approach that showed students that the adults are with them and hear them. In the end, students said that they felt like they actually learned something and respected the approach.
At my school, we work very hard each day to ensure our students feel safe and supported. As a school we’re working towards rebuilding and restoring our climate and relationships with students. Students have a sense that – because we aren’t excluding them – we want them to be here with us. As the school year draws to a close, I want to celebrate this important work many amazing colleagues do everyday at school to build a positive school climate. My colleagues inspire me to go above and beyond for my students.
Tiana Lee is the alternatives to suspensions specialist at Brooklyn Center High School.