Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy Charter Schools CEO, recently denounced “restorative conflict resolution,” saying that the practice makes schools less safe. Students who are violent toward other students need “discipline … not dialogue,” she wrote in the Wall Street Journal, in a piece aimed at criticizing the de Blasio administration’s shift toward restorative justice in new school discipline rules. Without safety, students cannot learn, let alone experience the “joy” of a well-ordered, clean, safe school environment, argues Moskowitz, who boasts that her charter schools suspended 11 percent of students last year.
As a former city schoolteacher who now studies discipline practices, I would argue that self-identified “restorative schools” manage to achieve communities of joy, safety, and learning while maintaining suspension rates below Success Academy’s and below the city average of 4 percent — although they do suspend students and do not tolerate threats to school safety.
Restorative justice theory emphasizes the value of accountability — all students and staff in a school are accountable to each other and to protect their learning environment (read more in discipline guides like “The Little Guide to Restorative Practices for Schools”). Conflict represents a rupture in that community, and that rupture must be “restored” through highly structured dialogue protocols, according to the theory. The particulars of such protocols vary from school to school, but some examples from New York City and Oakland, Calif., schools come in the film “Growing Fairness.”
Critics of restorative practices, including Moskowitz, portray them as anathema to “real discipline.” They say restorative schools are less safe, give students equal standing to educators in discipline matters, and do not offer the kinds of consequences that students will encounter in the real world.
My research has found that none of these arguments accurately characterizes restorative schools. During my three years of ethnographic work about restorative practices as part of my doctoral research, I have interviewed principals, students, and educators at restorative schools across the city. All assure me that any students who fight on campus are removed from the building immediately if there is a threat to student safety. Restorative conferences — which Moskowitz derides as “talking out” how actions “impact others” — are facilitated only after students have had proper time to cool down and, more importantly, have agreed to make amends with each other.
Moskowitz is right that restorative schools don’t always suspend students for fighting. That’s because administrators aim to spot and defuse conflicts before they become physical. Restorative justice is not merely a conflict resolution strategy; its largest component is a set of proactive, community building practices used to promote and protect the type of “purposeful, joyful” and physically safe learning environment that Moskowitz herself endorses.
Moskowitz also expresses concern about the notion of teachers and students engaging in conflict resolution as equals, describing a scenario in which teachers beg or bargain with students who punch other students. This is a caricature of what actually happens during the restorative process. Teachers and students in restorative schools are not “equals” in that they both get to determine the rules of the school or what behavior will be tolerated to maintain a safe school environment, as James Baldwin School founding principal Elijah Hawkes explains in Rethinking Schools. They are equal in that, as human beings who share a space and many experiences together, they have an obligation to understand and be sensitive to each other’s needs.
No child “needs” to punch another child, which is why physical violence is not tolerated in restorative schools. The difference is that those schools see violence as almost always speaking to deeper emotional needs that are going untreated. For students who grow up in violent and/or impoverished neighborhoods, violent behavior is often a symptom of underlying trauma. Those harms—the harm to the child who was hurt and to the child who acted violently—cannot be surfaced through suspension or removal, even if such actions are necessary in the immediate moments after a fight. Ultimately, harms can only be surfaced and restored through discussion, trust, and empathy.
That’s why I am cautiously hopeful about the de Blasio administration’s efforts to reduce the ease with which principals can suspend students for insubordinate behavior (something that federal authorities want urban districts with racially disproportionate suspension rates, such as New York City, to do). It’s also why I am alarmed that Moskowitz could think that purpose and joy are only possible when fewer than 90 percent of students are allowed to attend school year round. If we want our students to grow up able to resolve conflict the way conflict is resolved in the real world — through communication, without running away or banishing each other — we need to teach them the necessary skills.