We need restorative justice practices in schools

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By Keira Quintero

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For my nephew David, physical aggression, disrespect, and defiance started in kindergarten. He punched a teacher in the face on her first day back from maternity leave. Later, he aimed and threw a chair across the room. It took a principal and another teacher to physically remove him from the classroom. David needed help. That was obvious. At 6 years old, he was struggling with emotional and mental issues. He needed support and guidance. Instead, the system failed him. 

What happened next was typical. His first-grade teacher pressured for a chart for tracking behavior but then refused to follow through and implement it with fidelity. There was phone call after phone call, meeting after meeting with David's mother and the school leaders. He was suspended, sent to the office, yet nothing seemed to help. Finally, David was placed in an alternative school for the next three years of his elementary school experience. 

As a teacher, I know that students like David are not unique. In my home state of Illinois, zero-tolerance policies focus on punishing a student rather than restoring the harm done. The policies allow for suspension after suspension, even though there is a direct correlation between school attendance and graduation rate. If we're to ensure that students like my nephew who struggle emotionally and behaviorally succeed in school, we must change the way we approach school discipline in our school systems. With Senate Bill 100, we are in a position to do just that.

With SB 100, which the Illinois legislature passed in 2015, we have started to remove zero-tolerance and exclusionary discipline policies from our schools. Now we need new disciplinary protocols that rely on restorative practices. Which is why my cohort of Teach Plus Policy Fellows is putting forth a series of recommendations that will help schools transition these protocols under the new law. Our recommendations include:

 Provide thorough, mandatory training on SB 100 and corresponding school discipline protocols

 Implement disciplinary protocols that are informed by restorative justice and trauma-informed practices

 Ensure ongoing support, accountability and consistency for teachers as they implement new discipline protocols

 Allocate adequate funding and hold districts accountable for SB 100 implementation.

Restorative practices, which focus on building relationships and a community mindset within our classrooms, are a pivotal shift in the way we approach discipline in our schools. I believe that restorative practices work because I have implemented them in my own classroom and seen immediate positive results.

One of my classes has struggled with classroom community all year, with students pointing fingers at each other for wrongdoing. To turn negatives into positives, we recently started a peace circle, a core restorative justice practice, to focus on what we can all bring to our small community. We have already seen positive results by simply sharing how we feel. As a teacher, I can already see and feel a change in our classroom culture.

As for my nephew, David attended alternative programs through fifth grade, when he also began taking a few mainstream classes. In sixth grade, long after his initial struggles began, David enrolled in the mainstream program full time and also participated in his first peace circle. This was a turning point for him. His behavior and outlook completely changed and he is now a thriving eighth-grade student.

I believe that restorative practices can help many more students like David. This is what our schools in Illinois need and teachers should have all of the tools and resources to learn how to implement these practices in our classrooms.

Keira Quintero is a K-5 general music teacher at Holmes Elementary School in Oak Park. She is a Teach Plus Illinois Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna.

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