When Mayor Bill de Blasio began pushing schools to dramatically reduce suspensions in favor of more “restorative” approaches to student discipline, it was a policy designed to target schools like East Bronx Academy for the Future.
The grades 6-12 school, which is 98 percent black or Hispanic and situated in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country, has been responsible for an outsized share of the city’s suspensions, sometimes issuing more than 200 per year (the school serves about 660 students).
Suspensions were so routine when Nick Lawrence arrived as a teacher nine years ago, that they were often issued to multiple students per day. Now, as an assistant principal, Lawrence is at the forefront of the school’s effort to rethink how teachers should respond to student misbehavior. Last year, the school issued 30 percent fewer suspensions than the year before.
“The regular standard practice wasn’t actually affecting student behavior or getting to the root causes of the behaviors,” Lawrence said in a recent interview. But the school’s push to reshape student discipline hasn’t fully delivered on its promise. In a recent conversation with Chalkbeat, Lawrence articulated the challenges many schools are grappling with as they face pressure from the city to turn school discipline on its head.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your school has had some struggles with discipline. How did you handle it the past?
There was a very top-down structure, it was very traditional … A teacher would stay, “Stop doing that,” and if they were noncompliant, they would serve detention. And if they didn’t serve detention, or if there was some more egregious action, they would serve a suspension — and then it’s varying levels of suspensions … It was just do a suspension and come back.
Over time, we’d seen [the] regular standard practice in terms of discipline wasn’t actually affecting student behavior, or getting to the root causes of the behaviors.
Often they’d leave for a suspension and come back and there would still be the same issue, whether it was a conflict between kids or whatever.
How did you initially decide to do restorative justice?
There was a lot of pressure [from the mayor and the chancellor] to not just suspend kids. We needed to think more about trying to root out the underlying issues and I think that’s what turned a lot of heads toward restorative practices. A lot of people had some successes in other places and that’s why we were excited about it.
The concept of restorative practices can sometimes seem vague. What do you mean by it?
We’re still trying to figure out what that means for our school community and that’s where the problem starts in trying to figure out how to implement it.
A lot of it is about taking a step back and stopping yourself and examining how you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that. And with kids, it’s like being able to shut down [your own] frustration and turn your perspective back to what’s going on with them. It’s not just about reacting to what’s going on, but having real training about how to prevent a lot of these things from escalating.
It’s having a conversation that’s trying to root down into: Where are you? How are you interacting with other kids? Are you acting out because the circumstances surrounding things outside of this classroom? Rather than just “Would you please grow up?”
What were the first steps you took to reshape the school’s approach to discipline?
We tried to re-write our “ladder of referral” and think about what the process would be for kids once they had some kind of incident. Who would they talk to? What kind of mediations would happen? Is it a big restorative circle? Is it a mediation between two kids? If it’s in a classroom, is the teacher going to be involved? We talked about all of those things.
How has that work played out?
Some of the things that have stuck: restorative circles, which is usually a larger group of people. There’s a protocol involved with how to be effectively polite and how to share feelings and ideas. We’ve seen those happening. I think those can both be preventative and sort of after-the-fact.
We have a sixth-grade math teacher who was doing that every week, to debrief the week. We had a global teacher who was integrating restorative circles into current events.
But it obviously didn’t work perfectly. Though your school’s suspension rates have been falling, it still issued 167 last year, down from 240 the year before. And your school topped the list of suspensions issued for insubordination last year.
We’ve worked to give fewer suspensions, which in some ways has been productive and in some ways has been very frustrating. Last year, one of the big push-backs from the staff was the lack of consistency as to when suspensions were handed out.
A lot of [suspensions] were kicked back — [the Department of Education wasn’t] accepting suspensions. We can issue principal’s suspensions very easily, but superintendent suspensions [for more serious infractions], they kicked almost all of them back.
When we were trying to reduce suspensions, we really tried to avoid them when it probably made sense to issue them sometimes. We tried to figure out: Is this one of those situations? Can we talk this out, do we have time for that?
Because of that inconsistency, that was one of the biggest frustrations. We rethought this full bore “let’s [shift] to restorative practices” thing.
How do you know when it’s not working?
When we default to just a standard punitive [approach to discipline], we’re frustrated, we’re tired, there are 16 things going on, we just literally don’t have time for this, that’s one indicator.
When students didn’t believe in it — when they were just like, “We’re going to have a conversation so that you stop talking to me and then we’re going to go fight it out on the block anyway.” It’s not like that happened all the time, but it happened a couple times.
Can you be more specific about a time it didn’t work?
One [attempt] that didn’t work well was between a group of boys here who felt kind of a lot of loyalty to the school. They were not really well-behaved — they’re actually still here, they’re seniors. There was this new group of boys that were affiliated with unfortunate influences outside of the school and they felt like they were very much in conflict. We tried a lot of different things to mediate and they just wouldn’t do it.
Eventually the students that were new to the school left, which is not something that we embrace. That seemed like a failure. I would be lying if it wasn’t a sigh of relief, to some degree, we knew that the conflict was gone.
What are the biggest sticking points in making restorative justice a success?
It’s been finding the time and the right resources. I hear a lot from my boss that she really wants very good training. You send teachers to enough [professional development sessions] that aren’t that great and they’re going to say “I’m done with that.”
To get training in this, you need like four or five full days and you have to go back and practice them, which is the way that people learn … So it’s prioritizing it, getting people to commit to it ahead of time, and making sure we have the resources to pay for them to go, to pay them while they’re there, to pay for their subs. It’s not a cheap endeavor.
What do you make of the city’s mandate to reduce suspensions overall?
One of the only ways they can put pressure on schools is to require that [schools reduce suspensions].
We have to sort of change from both ends. It seems like it would be most effective if both [schools and the DOE] said they going to be less punitive … If the top is like less “throw the book at them,” then it sort of sets an example.
Just offering trainings to people, that doesn’t cause change to happen. I’ve offered plenty of trainings to the staff, and some people have taken me up on it, but it hasn’t caused systemic shifts in the way we use technology, or the way that we have instructional practices. That involves systemic change around leadership and getting people to buy in and actively tracking those things.
What proportion of your teachers have gotten some kind of training?
About 15-20 people were in a training [last week] — we have a staff of about 90. About 15 people went to [a separate] training in August.
Seems like there’s a balance to be struck. Can you issue suspensions and still add a more restorative approach?
It’s about finding the specific tools we can move forward with and not just have to blanket this as we’re going to be all restorative-happy. But funding specific trainings and finding specific people to train — finding a transition plan. It’s like the Affordable Care Act repeal. Don’t repeal this without a replacement. You have a system that makes things function, you can’t just throw it out.