Education professionals and students’ rights advocates have been pushing for big changes in school discipline procedures, including the use of restorative justice practices. Now the results are in: California is showing the rest of the country what it takes to keep students in school.
Early in 2014, the Obama administration sent a clear directive to school administrators across the country: stop suspending and expelling so many students. The School Discipline Guidance Package warned that the Department of Justice and Department of Education would be watching for racially motivated school discipline.
Even before the federal directive, the California Department of Education was working to keep students in school. In the 2012-2013 school year it began working with several districts to implement restorative justice practices which “promote respect, taking responsibility, and strengthening relationships.”
Like many other states’ schools, California school districts were suspending the most students for disruptive behavior called “willful defiance.” In the past year, expulsions for these non-violent disruptions was down 47.7 percent and suspensions were down 28.9 percent.
Now, starting in January, California is taking the process one step further. AB 420, signed into law in December eliminates out-of-school suspensions for children in grades K-3 and all expulsions for willful defiance. According to Laura Faer, Public Counsel’s statewide Education Rights Director,
“Reducing suspensions in the earliest grades means giving educators the tools they need to help students showing warning signs before they fall too far behind. AB 420 gives school districts extra incentive to expand research-proven alternatives to harsh discipline that focus on prevention, not interruption of a student’s education.”
This is particularly encouraging because California’s preliminary results are showing that its efforts are reaching far beyond student discipline. As a result of the restorative justice efforts, the state has seen dramatic improvements in drop out rates, absenteeism, literacy, and graduation rates.
That’s because restorative justice doesn’t simply remove a problem from the classroom. Instead it uses misbehavior as a learning opportunity, teaching students the consequences of their actions and how to make better choices. It is a model that has begun to gain traction across the country, but until recently was hard to find statistics to back up advocates’ claims of better educational outcomes.
Now that California can show concrete improvement in districts using restorative practices, perhaps more school districts will see the objective and subjective value of reducing traditional school disciplinary procedures in favor of alternative practices like restorative justice. Evidence is showing that doing so would certainly be in the best interests of their students.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a juvenile defense lawyer for Schmidt Law Services, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She represents students in suspension and expulsion proceedings, as well as in juvenile court. If you know a student who is facing serious disciplinary action at school, contact Schmidt Law Services today for a consultation.