a theory of justice

A Bronx school with a high suspension rate is trying restorative justice. It isn’t going as planned.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Nick Lawrence

When Mayor Bill de Blasio began pushing schools to dramatically reduce suspensions in favor of more “restorative” approaches to student discipline, it was a policy designed to target schools like East Bronx Academy for the Future.

The grades 6-12 school, which is 98 percent black or Hispanic and situated in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country, has been responsible for an outsized share of the city’s suspensions, sometimes issuing more than 200 per year (the school serves about 660 students).

Suspensions were so routine when Nick Lawrence arrived as a teacher nine years ago, that they were often issued to multiple students per day. Now, as an assistant principal, Lawrence is at the forefront of the school’s effort to rethink how teachers should respond to student misbehavior. Last year, the school issued 30 percent fewer suspensions than the year before.

“The regular standard practice wasn’t actually affecting student behavior or getting to the root causes of the behaviors,” Lawrence said in a recent interview. But the school’s push to reshape student discipline hasn’t fully delivered on its promise. In a recent conversation with Chalkbeat, Lawrence articulated the challenges many schools are grappling with as they face pressure from the city to turn school discipline on its head.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your school has had some struggles with discipline. How did you handle it the past?

There was a very top-down structure, it was very traditional … A teacher would stay, “Stop doing that,” and if they were noncompliant, they would serve detention. And if they didn’t serve detention, or if there was some more egregious action, they would serve a suspension — and then it’s varying levels of suspensions … It was just do a suspension and come back.

Over time, we’d seen [the] regular standard practice in terms of discipline wasn’t actually affecting student behavior, or getting to the root causes of the behaviors.

Often they’d leave for a suspension and come back and there would still be the same issue, whether it was a conflict between kids or whatever.

How did you initially decide to do restorative justice?

There was a lot of pressure [from the mayor and the chancellor] to not just suspend kids. We needed to think more about trying to root out the underlying issues and I think that’s what turned a lot of heads toward restorative practices. A lot of people had some successes in other places and that’s why we were excited about it.

The concept of restorative practices can sometimes seem vague. What do you mean by it?

We’re still trying to figure out what that means for our school community and that’s where the problem starts in trying to figure out how to implement it.

A lot of it is about taking a step back and stopping yourself and examining how you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that. And with kids, it’s like being able to shut down [your own] frustration and turn your perspective back to what’s going on with them. It’s not just about reacting to what’s going on, but having real training about how to prevent a lot of these things from escalating.

It’s having a conversation that’s trying to root down into: Where are you? How are you interacting with other kids? Are you acting out because the circumstances surrounding things outside of this classroom? Rather than just “Would you please grow up?”

What were the first steps you took to reshape the school’s approach to discipline?

We tried to re-write our “ladder of referral” and think about what the process would be for kids once they had some kind of incident. Who would they talk to? What kind of mediations would happen? Is it a big restorative circle? Is it a mediation between two kids? If it’s in a classroom, is the teacher going to be involved? We talked about all of those things.

How has that work played out?

Some of the things that have stuck: restorative circles, which is usually a larger group of people. There’s a protocol involved with how to be effectively polite and how to share feelings and ideas. We’ve seen those happening. I think those can both be preventative and sort of after-the-fact.

We have a sixth-grade math teacher who was doing that every week, to debrief the week. We had a global teacher who was integrating restorative circles into current events.

But it obviously didn’t work perfectly. Though your school’s suspension rates have been falling, it still issued 167 last year, down from 240 the year before. And your school topped the list of suspensions issued for insubordination last year.

We’ve worked to give fewer suspensions, which in some ways has been productive and in some ways has been very frustrating. Last year, one of the big push-backs from the staff was the lack of consistency as to when suspensions were handed out.

A lot of [suspensions] were kicked back — [the Department of Education wasn’t] accepting suspensions. We can issue principal’s suspensions very easily, but superintendent suspensions [for more serious infractions], they kicked almost all of them back.

When we were trying to reduce suspensions, we really tried to avoid them when it probably made sense to issue them sometimes. We tried to figure out: Is this one of those situations? Can we talk this out, do we have time for that?

Because of that inconsistency, that was one of the biggest frustrations. We rethought this full bore “let’s [shift] to restorative practices” thing.

How do you know when it’s not working?

When we default to just a standard punitive [approach to discipline], we’re frustrated, we’re tired, there are 16 things going on, we just literally don’t have time for this, that’s one indicator.

When students didn’t believe in it — when they were just like, “We’re going to have a conversation so that you stop talking to me and then we’re going to go fight it out on the block anyway.” It’s not like that happened all the time, but it happened a couple times.

Can you be more specific about a time it didn’t work?

One [attempt] that didn’t work well was between a group of boys here who felt kind of a lot of loyalty to the school. They were not really well-behaved — they’re actually still here, they’re seniors. There was this new group of boys that were affiliated with unfortunate influences outside of the school and they felt like they were very much in conflict. We tried a lot of different things to mediate and they just wouldn’t do it.

Eventually the students that were new to the school left, which is not something that we embrace. That seemed like a failure. I would be lying if it wasn’t a sigh of relief, to some degree, we knew that the conflict was gone.

What are the biggest sticking points in making restorative justice a success?

It’s been finding the time and the right resources. I hear a lot from my boss that she really wants very good training. You send teachers to enough [professional development sessions] that aren’t that great and they’re going to say “I’m done with that.”

To get training in this, you need like four or five full days and you have to go back and practice them, which is the way that people learn … So it’s prioritizing it, getting people to commit to it ahead of time, and making sure we have the resources to pay for them to go, to pay them while they’re there, to pay for their subs. It’s not a cheap endeavor.

What do you make of the city’s mandate to reduce suspensions overall?

One of the only ways they can put pressure on schools is to require that [schools reduce suspensions].

We have to sort of change from both ends. It seems like it would be most effective if both [schools and the DOE] said they going to be less punitive … If the top is like less “throw the book at them,” then it sort of sets an example.

Just offering trainings to people, that doesn’t cause change to happen. I’ve offered plenty of trainings to the staff, and some people have taken me up on it, but it hasn’t caused systemic shifts in the way we use technology, or the way that we have instructional practices. That involves systemic change around leadership and getting people to buy in and actively tracking those things.

What proportion of your teachers have gotten some kind of training?

About 15-20 people were in a training [last week] — we have a staff of about 90. About 15 people went to [a separate] training in August.

Seems like there’s a balance to be struck. Can you issue suspensions and still add a more restorative approach?

It’s about finding the specific tools we can move forward with and not just have to blanket this as we’re going to be all restorative-happy. But funding specific trainings and finding specific people to train — finding a transition plan. It’s like the Affordable Care Act repeal. Don’t repeal this without a replacement. You have a system that makes things function, you can’t just throw it out.

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.