a theory of justice

A Bronx school with a high suspension rate is trying restorative justice. It isn’t going as planned.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Nick Lawrence

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.

audit findings

Audit finds educational services lacking at Rikers Island, but corrections officials dispute report

PHOTO: Matt Green/Flickr

Corrections officials “systemically neglected” to ensure that young adult inmates knew they could enroll in school courses, according to an audit released Tuesday by Comptroller Scott Stringer. The audit also found that the city Department of Education failed to put mandated educational plans in place for incarcerated students with disabilities.

“That’s wrong, because if we’re going to reverse decades of backwards criminal justice policies, it’s going to be with bigger and better schools — not bigger and tougher prisons,” Stringer said in an emailed statement. “We have to do better.”

But officials from the city Department of Correction disputed the findings, and a response from the education department suggests the audit takes a narrow approach that misses “critical context.”

In 74 percent of sampled cases, the comptroller’s office couldn’t find evidence that inmates between the ages of 18 and 21 attended an orientation and were informed of their right to attend classes. In 68 percent of the sampled cases, auditors could not find required forms from inmates either accepting or rejecting educational services. In its response to the findings, a representative for the corrections department noted that some inmates may simply “refuse to sign the form.”

The corrections department wrote that it “disputes the overall finding” that inmates are not informed of their right to educational services. Furthermore, the audit “failed to capture” additional steps the department takes to do so.

In responses to the findings, included in the audit, corrections and education officials said all eligible students are offered the opportunity to attend classes. Every school day, the education department prints a list of eligible students who are in facilities with school programs, and the list is shared with corrections staff in the housing areas. Inmates who are interested can attend an information session and enroll immediately.

The corrections department’s response also states that inmates receive a handbook that includes information about enrolling in classes, and that signs are posted in common areas to inform inmates of their right to request educational services. Furthermore, the department conducts regular focus groups to create alternative programs of interest to young offenders who choose not to go to school, according to the response.

The audit also found that 48 percent of eligible students did not have a Special Education Plan, based on their Individualized Education Program, created for them within 30 days of beginning classes, as required. Those plans were never created for 36 percent of sample students, according to the audit.

The Department of Education responded that it is working to implement a new electronic system to track progress on education plans for students with disabilities, and that students who had such plans before being incarcerated continue to get the services they need.

The audit does note that all 16- and 17-year olds were receiving the educational services required by law. Those students have to attend school, whether they are incarcerated or not. Older students are eligible to receive educational services if they are under 21 years of age, have not already earned a high school diploma and will be incarcerated for 10 or more days.

Community voices

Memphians weigh in on Hopson’s investment plan for struggling schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Monday night to about 175 educators, parents and students gathered to learn about Shelby County Schools' plan to make new investments in struggling schools

After years of closing struggling schools, Shelby County Schools is changing course and preparing to make investments in them, beginning with 19 schools that are challenged by academics, enrollment, aging buildings and intergenerational poverty.

This May, 11 of those schools will receive “treatment plans” tailored to their needs and based on learnings from the Innovation Zone, the district’s 5-year-old school turnaround initiative. The other eight schools already are part of a plan announced last fall to consolidate them into three new buildings.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin talked up the new dynamic Monday night during a community meeting attended by about 175 educators, parents and students. In his proposed budget for next school year, Hopson has set aside $5.9 million to pay for supports for the 11 schools dubbed “critical focus” schools. 


Here’s the framework for the changes and which schools will be impacted.


Monday’s gathering was first in which Memphians got to publicly weigh in on the district’s new game plan. Here’s what several stakeholders had to say:

Quinterious Martin

Quinterious Martin, 10th-grader at Westwood High School:

“It really helped me to hear that the label of ‘critical’ is going to help us out, not pull us down. I was worried when I first heard our school would be on the list of critical schools, but I get it now. The point is to help the schools out, not make them feel worse. To me, one thing Westwood really needs is more classes to get us ready for our future careers, like welding or mechanics. My commitment tonight was to always improve in what I do.”

Deborah Calvin, a teacher at Springdale Elementary School:

“I enjoyed the presentation tonight. I think it’s so important to know everyone is on the same page. The plan will only be successful if everyone in the community is aware of what the goals are. I think they made it really clear tonight that just more money doesn’t help turn a school. It takes a lot of community support. We really need more parent involvement at Springdale. Children need support when they go home. They need someone to sit down with them and work through homework or read.”

Catherine Starks, parent at Trezevant High School:

“Honestly, I think this is just going through the motions and something to keep parents quiet. Some schools may be getting the supports they need, but not all of them are. Trezevant is one that is not. … We need good leadership and we need someone to be advocates for our kids. I want to see the kids at our school get the support they need from the principal, the guidance counselor, the superintendent. Trezevant has had negative everything, but now we need some positive attention. And we really need the community to step up.”

Neshellda Johnson and daughter Rhyan

Neshellda Johnson, fourth-grade teacher at Hawkins Mill Elementary School:

“Hawkins Mill has been in the bottom 5 percent for awhile and has been targeted (for takeover) by the state for about four consecutive years. …  It’s refreshing to see that, instead of putting us on the chopping block, the district is looking to actually invest in us and give us the tools we need so we can continue to have growth. … I’m looking to the district for academic supports with regards to reading, more teachers assistants, more time for teaching and less time for testing, and more after-school and summer enrichment programs. And in addition to supports for our students, I’m hopeful there will be supports offered for our parents. We have a need for mental health and counseling services in our area.”

You can view the district’s full presentation from Monday night below: