School suspensions and expulsions have long held a place in the essential toolkit for educators struggling to maintain control over their classrooms. Since all it took was a single disruptive student to undermine a safe, supportive learning environment, relocating problem behavior made sense.
The Norwalk School District, like so many others, bought into the logic, as evidenced by an increase in the number of expulsions and suspensions from 1,045 to 1,490 between 2014 and 2018.
Now, however, thanks to new research, punitive measures are out. Restorative methods are in.
Accordingly, the Norwalk School District is reworking its disciplinary policy with a long overdue revision of the Student Code of Conduct & Restorative Practice.
What changed? The times, for one thing. The suspension model dates back to an era when a parent was far more likely to be home during the school day to supervise. Demographics have changed, too. In 1968, more than 80 percent of America’s public school students were white, compared with 49 percent today. Studies show students of color are disproportionately suspended, as are disabled students. The lost instruction time – 11 million school days in 2015-2016 alone, equates to 60,000 school years, more than 60 million hours, and countless billions of dollars wasted, according to an American Civil Liberties Union analysis. It also correlates to a host of negative outcomes, including lower graduation and higher dropout rates, and a greater likelihood of entering the juvenile justice system.
As an effective disciplinary tool, suspensions have also been largely discredited. Rather than deter future behavior problems, studies show, getting kicked out of school is twice as likely to spark anger as remorse, thereby alienating the very children who need school the most. Given all that we’ve learned about the roots of problem behavior, it’s high time for a more supportive approach.
In Norwalk’s schools, that translates into improving communication within the classroom, shoring up relationships between students and staff, focusing on harm done rather than rules broken, and engaging in collaborative problem-solving.
“The goal is to be proactive so that we are not meeting with the assistant principal after a negative behavior,” says Brien McMahon Assistant Principal Barbara Wood, among those who drafted the new code. “It really is an approach to ... community building, which we’ve worked so hard to do throughout the Norwalk Public Schools.”
Adds Roton Middle School Assistant Principal LaShante James, another code author, “This new way of looking at this ... brings a human element into the school between the staff and the students.”
Superintendent of Schools Steven J. Adamowski said the code of conduct revision, last attempted in 2012, is aimed at elevating students’ level of responsibility by teaching, rather than punishing, them.
The Board of Education will address — and, we hope, endorse — the proposed code of conduct at its Feb.19 meeting. So-called exclusionary discipline is draconian and unfair, a relic from a less enlightened age.
For today’s students, we can — and must — do better.