The Suspension Conundrum: Are Restorative Justice Practices Too Late? Can We Identify Students Prone to Committing Anti-Social Acts and Intervene Earlier?

From the presidential campaign to city politics, across the nation the “school to prison pipeline” is near the top of every educational agenda.

The Clinton Campaign Education Issues website,

… too many communities, student discipline is overly harsh—and these harsh measures disproportionately affect African American students and those with the greatest economic, social, and academic needs

There is no question that zero tolerance policies can be counterproductive; however, suspensions in New York City do not bar students from school. The Department has a detailed 35-page Discipline Code that clearly and explicitly explains each violation and the appropriate action. Principal suspensions, from one to five school days, results in a removal from the classroom and the placement in what is usually called a SAVE room in the building;  the student receives, in theory, academic services and counseling and the parent is required to attend a conference.  Serious breaches of the Discipline Code: weapons possession, fighting, etc., can result in a superintendent suspension, which is usually 30, 60 or 90 days and can be up to a year. A disciplinary hearing is required, the student can be represented by an advocate; the parent is entitled to all the documentation and a hearing officer makes a final determination. Students who receive superintendent suspensions attend alternative sites with low class size and counseling.

. Incarcerated youth, youth in drug treatment facilities, young people seeking high school equivalency diplomas, all are placed through Referral Centers located around the city into appropriate education settings

.Read the suspension procedures in full here.

As the school to pipeline trope has grown the Department has tightened the suspension faucet. The number of suspensions has dropped sharply. The Daily News reports,

The number of city school kids suspended and arrested continues to drop, according to data released Monday.

Suspensions dropped by 15.6%, from 44,626 in the 2014-2015 school year to 37,647 in the 2015-2016 school year, the city Education Department said.

The drop is due to several factors, including the expansion of “therapeutic crisis interventions,” as well as the addition of 250 guidance counselors over the last two years and 100 mental health consultants this year, DOE officials said.

The teacher union president, Michael Mulgrew and the Mike Petrilli, president of the Fordham Foundation,  a right of center think tank are on the same page, criticizing the tightening of the suspension faucet without extensive counseling interventions at schools.

The Department, and just about everyone else has jumped on the restorative justice band wagon as an alternative school-based intervention. Both The Atlantic and the New York Times  have lengthy articles praising, with reservations, restorative justice programs.

The restorative justice enthusiasm reflects a core issue – we intervene after the horses have left the barn. Much of system is based on identifying failing students or failing schools or failing school districts  and providing some sort of, for lack of a better term, a restorative practice:  We are teaching resuscitation techniques rather than identifying the non-swimmers and teaching them to swim.

Instead of harping on the pipeline let’s take a deeper dive: Can we identify the characteristics of students who were suspended? For example, Kim Nauer and her team at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School identified 17 poverty risk load factors; some in school and others in the surrounding community. Can we construct a predictive metric? Will students with 6 or 8 or 10 of the risk load factors be more likely to be suspended? Which particular factor most closely correlates with suspensions?

Or, we can ask the kindergarten teacher.

My wife, a kindergarten teacher used to say: by November she could trace out the life path of students, a few she could alter, too many she couldn’t.  In my union rep days one of my favorite schools was the annex to PS 269. A pre-2 building, about ten classes on a grade, run by an AP and the teachers. The staff was both dedicated, really, really smart and feisty. One year they worked out a plan: the kindergarten teachers would select the 10 most difficult boys on the grade and assign them to the teacher who designed the plan. The other teachers agreed to accept one extra kid – the program didn’t cost additional dollars. At the end of the year the teacher, who has “the knack,” had turned most of the miscreants into upstanding citizens. Master teachers create miracles – the staff simply worked out a plan to address what they saw as an issue. No grants, no superintendents, no staff developers, just empowered teachers and a smart assistant principal who trusted his staff.

The Pre-K for All program in New York City is an opportunity to identify and intervene when the kid is four-years old; community schools may have the resources to address the out of school, the community deficits that impact the poverty risk load.

An intervention that begins after the student has committed the anti-social act, the act that may require a suspension, is too late.

Restorative practices should be part of elementary classrooms, many teachers guide students in creating school rules, student courts and tribunals can be useful, whatever is comfortable for the staff, and has some sort of evaluation tool attached.  Suspensions must always be an option; there are some actions that are so egregious that a punishment is required. Actions must have consequences. I have been in too many schools in which the line in the sand kept moving until anarchy was the norm.

A teacher told me a fascinating story: One kid was bullying another kid in a public space – the kid pushed and pushed; the second kid punched the bullier in the face, splitting his lip.

The kids met with the principal and the counselor, told the behavior was unacceptable, they would have to attend counseling sessions, participate in restorative circles. The mother of the puncher was called into school and told the behavior was unacceptable and she must work with her son – the behavior could have very serious consequences. The mother interjected, she said the counselor didn’t live in her neighborhood, in her project. “If you back down you’re a victim, you can’t allow yourself to be bullied.”  The counselor insisted, the parent responded, “Let’s change residences for a month, you move into my project, I‘ll move into your house, we’ll see if you feel the same way.”

Neighborhoods that surround schools have cultures and neighborhood cultures impact the lives of the community. Schools have to acknowledge the culture, and work within the mores that surround the school.

The teacher who related the story said she learned to talk with kids, informally, every day. She learned that to bring the kids into your world you have to enter their world.

Headlines about declining suspension rates are lipstick on the proverbial pig.

2 responses to “The Suspension Conundrum: Are Restorative Justice Practices Too Late? Can We Identify Students Prone to Committing Anti-Social Acts and Intervene Earlier?

  1. I have said it over and over again..Suspensions, and most school behavioral modification techniques are and have always been reactionary procedures. Resources , especially school allocation resources have never addressed anticipatory counseling, or early identification of troubled students, So when you see what we have seen all over America, in Colorado, in Tenn, In Conn, and too many other locals to print, and we hear School leaders say, “I had no idea”, or “things like this are not supposed to happen here”, we have only to look at how resources are allocated and the lack of pre- service training in terms of early identification of potential overt behavioral issues. Overt being the key word here.
    Additionally, there comes a point with regard to certain youth that they have reached an incorrigible stage of development. School suspensions won’t do anything to modify those students behaviors. So until and unless school authorities are committed to re-dux their approach to behavioral modification counseling from one of reaction to one of anticipation and identification, we will continue to see the horrors that we see on an almost daily basis. And all the Woe is Me procrastinators will continue to look for answers, when the answer is right in front of them. And yes, I do advocate alternative school setting for students who have shown incorrigible behavioral tendencies. Confrontational youth, cannot be reformed in a setting that is ill equipped to handle such confrontation..


  2. Amen Ken!

    I have two other points.

    1. How about the waste of instructional time for the rest of the students?

    2. If you don’t think this is a driver of those seeking an alternative path to an education for their kids, I have a bridge awaiting sale.


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