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A different approach to discipline in schools

Peter Goodman is a Las Cruces news columnist, radio commentator, lawyer, and self-proclaimed rabble-rouser, and the author of The Moonlit Path, a novel.
Courtesy photo.
Peter Goodman is a Las Cruces news columnist, radio commentator, lawyer, and self-proclaimed rabble-rouser, and the author of The Moonlit Path, a novel.

Commentary:

Starting around 2017, influenced by former School Board President Maria Flores, the school sought to reexamine its approach to discipline. Automatically meting out punishments, particularly suspensions or expulsions, wasn’t working for the schools (not really changing any kids’ hearts and minds) or for the community (putting uneducated kids on the streets, when perhaps he could have gone further in his education. Suspension is “the nuclear option.”

LCPS was tired of repeating similar actions with a forlorn hope of getting a better result.

So what IS “restorative justice” as practiced in our schools?

“It’s about teaching kids how to cope with their emotions and understand the harm caused by any infraction,” says Roberto Lozano, Associate Superintendent of Equity, Innovation, and Social Justice. It rests on five Rs: Relationship, Respect, Responsibility, Repair, and Reintegration.

It’s not about “no consequences.” It’s about tailoring those consequences to the specific situation, kids, and infraction, in a way that might improve the situation for everyone, not just put kids prematurely on the street instead of en route to a diploma. And as a kid who was usually in trouble, I’d have hated it. I’d have said, “Punish me any way you feel like, you jerks!” rather than have to sit down and discuss the harm I’d caused. With victims.

Rather than automatically thinking “Punishment!” the teachers learn to consider “restorative practices” that might repair the harm done, restore harmony, and even maybe even reach the root cause of a kid’s misbehavior. The school arms principals, counselors, and teachers with tools for more subtle and sharply focused responses to misconduct – which takes everyone more time and effort, but promises superior results. “This work is hard,” Dr. Lozano warns.

It’s about getting kids to reflect on the harms caused by their own misbehavior. LCPS is doesn’t compromise where safety is concerned, but seeks generally to turn sour behavior into refreshing discussions and, hopefully, kids’ insights into themselves and their conduct. An example: angry mother of first grader complains some “monster” classmate grabbed her daughter’s backside. Assistant principal identifies boy and calls parents, who apologize profusely, explaining the boy went to park with older brother and friends, saw them grabbing each other’s asses in play, thought that was how one behaves. They’ve told him otherwise. Principal schedules sit-down. Parents meet. Mother is still angry, but softens a little when she hears explanation. Then kids join them. Mother breaks into hysterical laughter when she sees how small and clueless the “monster” is.

Strong student-teacher relationships are essential. Building such relationships may not be in the syllabus; but writing it off is like canceling football practices and just playing weekly games because you can’t record a “win” by practicing. Or objecting that changing the spark plugs isn’t driving to Tucson. Strengthening relationships and trust furthers the basic mission by improving kids’ ability and motivation to learn reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. Studies show kids who are relative comfortable in class learn better. Which makes sense. Don’t we all function better when we’re not too distracted by uncertainty whether we belong, fears that no one cares about us, or emotional upheaval about having been beaten up?

I’m not sure how widely the program has spread. A high school teacher recalled some talk of it a few years ago “from the higher ups,” but really hadn’t seen it in action.

But the idea is good.

Peter Goodman's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of KRWG Public Media or NMSU.