A year after the Obama administration issued new school discipline policies based on the concern that students of color are “disproportionately impacted” by suspensions and expulsions, a journalist proposes the liberal policies–based in social justice ideology–are making schools less safe.
In an article in Saturday’s New York Post, Hoover Institution media fellow Paul Sperry explains that replacing traditional discipline with “restorative justice” and “peer juries” is backfiring, to the extent that many school districts are experiencing an increase in violence and disruptions.
“Restorative justice,” writes Sperry, “isn’t really punishment at all. It’s therapy.” And it’s a type of therapy the Obama administration is holding out as the answer to what it considers to be the racist discipline of black students who are suspended at rates higher than those of white students.
The move to “race-based anti-discipline guidelines,” says Sperry, “is creating friction between teachers unions and the liberal mayors they otherwise support.” Likely more problematic, however, is that the policies provide liberal “cover” for politicians who support the ideology behind them, while teachers are left to cope with increasing disruption and higher levels of danger in schools.
The new policies may lead to fewer suspensions, but Sperry warns those reports do not necessarily mean there have been fewer infractions of the rules.
In Chicago, one teacher described the scene at her school as “totally lawless” for the past several months since Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the school district was “moving away from a zero-tolerance policy and promoting restorative practices” as part of a “Suspension and Expulsion Reduction Plan.”
“Restorative justice” means students who bully others are no longer allowed to be removed from classrooms, save for the highest level offenses, and only then with permission from a district supervisor. One Chicago teacher told the Tribune that the new policy is “being implemented in a hodgepodge fashion.”
“You have to have consequences,” said fifth grade Chicago teacher John Engels. “If you knew the cops weren’t going to enforce the speed limit, when you got on the Edens Expressway you’d go 100 miles an hour.”
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett told the Tribune that prior to her arrival, the code of conduct in her district was overly punitive and contributed to wide racial disparities in the number of suspensions.
“I’m confident that the proposed revisions to the Student Code of Conduct will provide increased clarity, reduce subjectivity, and (institute) an overall more holistic, restorative, instructive approach to dealing with disciplinary infractions,” Byrd-Bennett told the Chicago Board of Education last June.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, Sperry observes, recently announced a similar, more “holistic” policy that, according to him, deals with the “root causes” of bad behavior and will provide “a safe learning environment.”
In Syracuse, New York, where the school district adopted “restorative justice” anti-discipline practices, Sperry reports that student behavior has worsened, with more fighting among teens, increased verbal abuse of teachers, and more student time spent walking around the halls.
In a Syracuse Post-Standard letter to the editor last April, Syracuse Teachers Association President Kevin Ahern said that “front line educators’ efforts to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment for all students are undercut by what appears to be systemic inability to administer and enforce consistent consequences for violent and highly disruptive student behaviors,” a situation that puts “students and staff at risk” and makes “quality instruction impossible.”
Similarly, the Los Angeles Unified School District is seeing a hike in offenses once its school superintendent adopted the Obama administration’s “restorative justice” practices to reduce suspensions of African-American students.
“I was terrified and bullied by a fourth-grade student,” a teacher at a Los Angeles Unified School District school recently noted on the Los Angeles Times website. “The black student told me to ‘Back off, b—h.’ I told him to go to the office and he said, ‘No, b—h, and no one can make me.’ ”
Complained another LAUSD teacher: “We now have a ‘restorative justice’ counselor, but we still have the same problems. Kids aren’t even suspended for fights or drugs.”
In Santa Ana, Sperry continues, middle school students smoke pot in bathrooms, attack staff and spit on and threaten teachers with stabbing–with no disciplinary consequences.
Similar behavior in Philadelphia is met with “talking circles,” instead of suspensions, he explains. One former middle school teacher in the city said minority students break rules and then dare teachers to have them removed from class, knowing their hands are tied with the new “restorative justice” policies.
“I’m going to torture you,” teacher Allen Zollman said a student informed him in testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “I’m doing this because I can’t be removed.”
Nevertheless, in a speech to black students at Howard University last year, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan touted:
The Attorney General’s been a great partner on school discipline, and trying to move away from zero-tolerance policies that perpetuate those school-to-prison pipelines and think about restorative justice and peer juries. We’ve visited fantastic schools that have historically had staggering rates of violence and discipline issues.
But young people are now taking control of the culture themselves and taking control of the environment. And their leadership is leading to a safer environment and leading to a situation where young people can be successful.
It’s a kind of an [sic] counterintuitive things [sic] for many of us as adults that the more we give up power and the more we empower others, often the better things are. And empowering teenagers to be part of the solution–having them control the environment, control the culture, be the leaders, listening to them, respecting them–when we do that, wonderful things happen for kids and communities where that didn’t happen historically.
“We have been working really hard to basically move away from a zero-tolerance strategy … [and create a] culture that is about healing from harm and restoring a sense of relationship,” said Tony Smith, Oakland Unified School District superintendent, at a press conference announcing the district’s “restorative justice” plan. “There have been deep and long-term structural reasons … that have excluded and pushed out boys of color, and most often … our African-American boys. The waste of so much human potential is not only unacceptable in Oakland, but across the country.”
While Duncan held up Oakland’s “restorative justice” program as a model for the nation, teacher Nancy Caruso told Christian Science Monitor that students who have been violent often have to wait weeks until “restorative” services are available.
“There have been serious threats against teachers,” Caruso said, observing that one student’s hair was even lit on fire. Administrators, she added, “don’t do the paperwork for [expulsion], so the kid gets a five-day suspension and [is] back.”
Oakland’s restorative justice program includes training sessions titled “Race and Restorative Justice” and “African-Centered Restorative Justice Approaches.”
The new “restorative” policies often suggest that teachers are to blame for the high rate of suspensions and discipline actions among black students.
In Portland, Oregon, Sperry reports, where millions of dollars have been spent on restorative justice and “courageous conversations about race,” a black high school student repeatedly punched his white teacher in the face, sending her to the emergency room. Subsequently, the teacher was reportedly counseled by the assistant principal not to press charges against the student, and was “lectured … about how hard it is for young black men to overcome a criminal record.” Additionally, the teacher said, according to the Willamette Week, the administrator told her to examine what role she, “as a white woman” with white privilege bias, played in her own attack.
As Breitbart News reported in November, the Minneapolis School District also announced that suspensions of non-white students must receive the approval of the superintendent of schools, a practice some education and legal experts say is the outright establishment of “racial quotas.”
Hans Bader, senior attorney at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told Breitbart News the Minneapolis district was “adopting what the courts would consider to be racial quotas in discipline to help resolve an investigation by the Education Department’s federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR).”
Bader observed the inconsistency in the messages coming from OCR.
“To try to reduce unintended racial disparities, schools, encouraged by the Office for Civil Rights, are replacing suspension for violent offenders with talking circles and ‘restorative justice’ (even as they continue to suspend kids for things like toy guns),” he told Breitbart News. “As a result, school violence is increasing, and students are escaping discipline for things like threatening teachers and setting classmates’ hair on fire.”
“But ironically,” Bader added, “it’s not reducing the only disparity that matters in the eyes of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR)–the ratio of suspended blacks to whites, because cutting the overall suspension rate does nothing to the relative ratio, which is what legally defines ‘disparate impact’ under OCR rules–and it’s increasing school violence and injustice.”