“No Excuses” or “Restorative Justice”?

If you have any interest in school discipline, you definitely need to listen to this week’s episode of the radio show This American Life. The episode, called “Is This Working?” (#538), provides context around racially disproportionate discipline practices and then explores how discipline works on two extremes of the spectrum—a “no excuses” charter school and a “restorative justice” school.

Although I am no fan of the “no excuses” movement, it is the “restorative justice” school in the program that really scares me.  Like many schools implementing restorative practices, this school seems to have misinterpreted “restorative” to mean a lack of boundaries and consequences. As the reporter notes, “All this talking can look just like total chaos. There are kids in the hallways all the time, there are fights, there’s random screaming inbetween classes.”

The failure of the school’s approach becomes most apparent when two teachers take a group of students on a field trip on the New York subway. A student named Nelson, who has a long history of inappropriate behavior at school (but has good relationships with his teachers, which is the misguided goal of schools like this), gets bumped on the subway and gets into a confrontation with a man who turns out to be an undercover cop. One teacher, who says he is scared to see Nelson in handcuffs, tries to “talk it out” with the police officer, but the cop ignores him and arrests Nelson for assaulting an officer.

The students understand that their teachers are disconnected from the real world and unable to create real safety. The reporter describes their attitude toward their teachers: “Your funky little [restorative justice] system is cool when we’re in school and all, but don’t try to take it and apply it to our world—you’re in over your head.”

Many of us are in over our heads when it comes to school discipline. The “no excuses” approach is popular because it is simple and clear cut. But even when implemented without racial bias, it can be dehumanizing and push students out of school. Moreover, it’s not clear that imposing extremely strict discipline leads to the development of self-discipline.

Especially in the liberal Bay Area, many educators prefer the increasingly popular “restorative” approach. But when implemented without clear limits and real consequences, restorative justice is more damaging than zero tolerance. It leads students to believe that they can “talk things out” over and over again, and never develop the self-discipline needed to survive in the world. This is an especially dangerous belief in a poor or working-class neighborhood where there are swift and often severe consequences for mistakes.

What we really need is for schools to take the middle path between these two extremes. Of course schools should use restorative practices like talking circles—it’s a traditional human approach to conflict. But like all effective communities, schools also need clear boundaries and consequences (including suspension and expulsion for serious offenses) that are implemented equitably and in ways that help students learn to be their best selves.

One way of articulating this balanced approach is the idea of the “Warm Demander” teacher. As Lisa Delpit writes in Multiplication is for White People, “Warm demanders expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment.”

We know from experience that being a true Warm Demander teacher, or school, is much easier said than done. In our early years at June Jordan, we mis-interpreted “social justice” to mean something similar to the “restorative” school in the radio show. Thanks to our former Co-Director Darrick Smith, we re-framed our approach. Now we have school-wide guidelines for how to be a Warm Demander, both in the classroom and when it comes to school-wide discipline practices.

We still struggle to find the right balance and are always looking for other teachers and schools to be critical colleagues in this work. If you agree with us that there is a “third approach” between the two extremes described in the radio show, please get in touch so we can collaborate.