First Person

What Eva Moskowitz gets wrong about restorative discipline

Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy Charter Schools CEO, recently denounced “restorative conflict resolution,” saying that the practice makes schools less safe. Students who are violent toward other students need “discipline … not dialogue,” she wrote in the Wall Street Journal, in a piece aimed at criticizing the de Blasio administration’s shift toward restorative justice in new school discipline rules. Without safety, students cannot learn, let alone experience the “joy” of a well-ordered, clean, safe school environment, argues Moskowitz, who boasts that her charter schools suspended 11 percent of students last year.

As a former city schoolteacher who now studies discipline practices, I would argue that self-identified “restorative schools” manage to achieve communities of joy, safety, and learning while maintaining suspension rates below Success Academy’s and below the city average of 4 percent — although they do suspend students and do not tolerate threats to school safety.

Restorative justice theory emphasizes the value of accountability — all students and staff in a school are accountable to each other and to protect their learning environment (read more in discipline guides like “The Little Guide to Restorative Practices for Schools”). Conflict represents a rupture in that community, and that rupture must be “restored” through highly structured dialogue protocols, according to the theory. The particulars of such protocols vary from school to school, but some examples from New York City and Oakland, Calif., schools come in the film “Growing Fairness.”

Critics of restorative practices, including Moskowitz, portray them as anathema to “real discipline.” They say restorative schools are less safe, give students equal standing to educators in discipline matters, and do not offer the kinds of consequences that students will encounter in the real world.

My research has found that none of these arguments accurately characterizes restorative schools. During my three years of ethnographic work about restorative practices as part of my doctoral research, I have interviewed principals, students, and educators at restorative schools across the city. All assure me that any students who fight on campus are removed from the building immediately if there is a threat to student safety. Restorative conferences — which Moskowitz derides as “talking out” how actions “impact others” — are facilitated only after students have had proper time to cool down and, more importantly, have agreed to make amends with each other.

Moskowitz is right that restorative schools don’t always suspend students for fighting. That’s because administrators aim to spot and defuse conflicts before they become physical. Restorative justice is not merely a conflict resolution strategy; its largest component is a set of proactive, community building practices used to promote and protect the type of “purposeful, joyful” and physically safe learning environment that Moskowitz herself endorses.

Moskowitz also expresses concern about the notion of teachers and students engaging in conflict resolution as equals, describing a scenario in which teachers beg or bargain with students who punch other students. This is a caricature of what actually happens during the restorative process. Teachers and students in restorative schools are not “equals” in that they both get to determine the rules of the school or what behavior will be tolerated to maintain a safe school environment, as James Baldwin School founding principal Elijah Hawkes explains in Rethinking Schools. They are equal in that, as human beings who share a space and many experiences together, they have an obligation to understand and be sensitive to each other’s needs.

No child “needs” to punch another child, which is why physical violence is not tolerated in restorative schools. The difference is that those schools see violence as almost always speaking to deeper emotional needs that are going untreated. For students who grow up in violent and/or impoverished neighborhoods, violent behavior is often a symptom of underlying trauma. Those harms—the harm to the child who was hurt and to the child who acted violently—cannot be surfaced through suspension or removal, even if such actions are necessary in the immediate moments after a fight. Ultimately, harms can only be surfaced and restored through discussion, trust, and empathy.

That’s why I am cautiously hopeful about the de Blasio administration’s efforts to reduce the ease with which principals can suspend students for insubordinate behavior (something that federal authorities want urban districts with racially disproportionate suspension rates, such as New York City, to do). It’s also why I am alarmed that Moskowitz could think that purpose and joy are only possible when fewer than 90 percent of students are allowed to attend school year round. If we want our students to grow up able to resolve conflict the way conflict is resolved in the real world — through communication, without running away or banishing each other — we need to teach them the necessary skills.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.