While federal investigators continue to pore through discipline data in Seattle schools, concerned about a pattern of punishing minority students at higher rates than whites, many of the district’s teachers say there’s no need to wait for a formal verdict. They know there’s a problem, and they want to move ahead with a solution that could address it.
Jonathan Knapp, president of the Seattle Education Association, said the union plans to hammer out a proposal this month, urging the school district to consider restorative justice as a new model for student discipline.
“I sense not just a willingness, but an eagerness to get to it,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Restorative justice, as described in an Education Lab story last month, treats misbehavior as harm done to a relationship and focuses on repairing it, rather than simply suspending students. Teachers who have used this approach in other cities, like Denver and San Francisco, say it can make a huge difference in classroom dynamics.
But restorative justice is not without challenges, particularly for teachers, who must cede some traditional authority by sharing their own feelings about a disciplinary incident. Tossing obstreperous kids from class without explanation is no longer an option.
Early research suggests that this emphasis on sharing perspectives may help close the gap in understanding between mostly white teachers and students who, increasingly, do not look like them.
There are significant costs, however. San Francisco spends about $900,000 annually for on-site coordinators, training and other expenses associated with restorative justice. Suspensions there have dropped by half in the last four years.
Locally, only one school — Big Picture in Highline — regularly handles discipline through restorative justice, though individual educators throughout the region practice it informally.
“These problems are systemic,” said Knapp, “so we need some buy-in and commitment from the district to address them, rather than just paying lip service.”
For many of the educators who are frustrated by the lack of sanctioned alternatives in Seattle, the link between suspending students and dwindling academic performance could not be clearer.
“If your discipline system is effective, God bless. But many of us are not finding that, and an ineffective discipline system continues to eat away at instructional time,” said Catherine Brown, an assistant principal at Cleveland High School. “I would really encourage our district to consider consistent investing in restorative justice.”