I try to follow closely the discussions around school discipline including zero tolerance or "no excuses" discipline policies, restorative justice, and the school-to-prison-pipeline. I applaud many of the groups of youth, youth workers, educators, and parents working to dismantle the StPP and implement more restorative practices in our schools, especially in schools serving low income Black and Latino students. There is no question that Black and Latino youth are being mistreated by racist and misguided discipline policies.
However, I feel there is a huge piece of the conversation that is missing: mental health. As we discuss student behaviors and appropriate contexts and reactions to those behaviors, I feel like we are glossing over the very real and very serious implications of trauma, depression, or other mental health effects that are exacerbated by poverty and racial oppression. Too many of our students and their families and communities are daily being bombarded by such incredible injustice and obstacles that the mental health toll comes out in their behaviors. Children and youth are responding in very normal and predictable ways to absolutely untenable circumstances. Poverty is often racialized in our city and poverty matters.
Back last fall, I finagled my way-by practically begging my administration-to a CPS training on Restorative Justice. It was a good training. I appreciated practice in alternative ways to handle disputes, student conflicts, and especially the focus on "repairing the harm". Instead of "punishment", students are encouraged to come up with ways to fix whatever damage their behavior caused. I could see it working for many smaller problems that arise daily in schools, teaching children and young people responsibility while giving them a voice in the matter.
But in the back of my mind, I kept thinking back to my time teaching at a psychiatric hospital. And I thought about the kinds of absolute horrors some children have been exposed to. Hearing their stories of abuse that make you want to come home and weep. Kids being exposed to all kinds of violence. Children being thrown-unwanted-around foster care and group homes. Poverty and racism were so often at the heart of these stories. Parents who sought refuge in alcohol and drugs when there are no jobs, only housing insecurity and pain available. Families ripped apart by the prison-industrial complex. Babies who watched their siblings burn to death when they were left alone in a subpar housing complex during winter. Kindergartners being shot while sitting in their living rooms.
These stories sound extreme and certainly not every child or family living in poverty experiences these types of tragedies. But far too many people do. Far too many.
Being back in a neighborhood school located in a neighborhood experiencing deep poverty, I am reminded daily how ineffective even the best-intentioned discipline strategies are.
I appreciate the fact that restorative justice advocates are trying to reduce suspensions. But who is working on addressing the underlying reasons behind tough behaviors? People, especially children, will not be cured from major PTSD or depression by good intentions. No, we should not make things even worse through punitive discipline, but let's also not pretend that switching to restorative practices is nearly enough.
I want the conversation to go deeper and get more real. Teachers are in classrooms every day having to decide how to address truly dangerous and debilitating behaviors. A peace circle is great, but it's not enough. We are experiencing concentrated negative behaviors with no where near enough resources. And school policy is creating more concentrations of poverty and further segregating our school by race, class, and ability. It's one thing to be an advocate on the outside calling for restorative practices, it's quite another to be the teacher or school staff personnel confronted daily with the behavioral realities of working with kids in deep poverty. Kids who are in a constant state of fight or flight-ready to fight at the smallest provocation. Kids who cannot sit still, cannot focus, and even with modifications and accommodations, end up monopolizing a teacher's time.
There is racism in our school discipline systems. I don't want to take anything away from that fight. I have no doubt that there are white teachers who are making racist discipline decisions which accounts for some of the disparities. But isn't a greater racism that children of color are far more likely in our city to be exposed to trauma, to toxic stress, to have a greater number of adverse childhood experiences which lead to very normal but very disruptive behaviors in schools?
Can we talk about that please?