A student throws a chair at a teacher. A typical chain of events follows this incident: The student is removed from the classroom—perhaps sent to the principal's office or escorted by safety officers in the school—and then receives a prompt out-of-school suspension. When the student returns to the classroom, it's likely that nothing was done to repair the relationship with the teacher.
And thus, the cycle of misbehavior and stricter punishment continues.
This type of retributive justice, or justice based on punishment rather than rehabilitation, has been the most widely used method of discipline in American schools for decades. And it makes sense: If a student is disrupting the class, the easiest and most effective remedy is removing the student from the classroom.
Or is it?
LaQuesha Grigsby, the principal of Bammel Middle School in Houston, Texas, doesn't think so. "We're in a situation where we have to do something drastic," Grigsby told the Texas Tribune, "because what we've been doing is not working."
The school decided to try a new disciplinary technique: Twice a week, students and teachers circle up to talk about their feelings, complete with a wooden "talking piece" that students pass around for the chance to speak. Instead of looking for ways to make punishments stricter, this kind of restorative discipline seeks to build relationships and repair harm.
Though this practice may, on the outside, look silly, the results have been impressive. At Bammel Middle School, more students and teachers have reported being happy than they did last year, and three-day out-of-school suspensions have dropped from 94 last school year to 47 this year.
And Bammel is not an anomaly. Over the past decade, many American schools have looked to restorative justice to help improve their disciplinary practices, an especially important move as educators continue to disproportionately suspend and expel students of color.
Schools in Texas, South Carolina, California, Pennsylvania, and other areas have found success in restorative discipline, noting that it helps to keep students in school and promotes empathy in students—which can help to prevent future misbehavior.
Restorative techniques may have a wider reach than just schools. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, removal-style discipline often leads students of color to the "school to prison pipeline," a national trend wherein "children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems."
With an emphasis on techniques like those used at Bammel Middle School, American schools could help to mold children's behavioral tendencies and coping mechanisms at an early age and perhaps reduce the short-term risks for violent outbursts and even the long-term risks for criminal activity in adulthood.