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Bruno: School Discipline Doesn't Have To Be Complicated

In the past, I've expressed my skepticism about school-wide discipline initiatives like Restorative Justice that may be too complex to implement effectively. A recent Education Week commentary by Los Angeles Unified assistant superintendent Earl Perkins gives us a good opportunity to remember that we shouldn't make school-wide discipline issues more complicated than they need to be.

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According to Perkins, LAUSD has seen a 43% drop in student days lost to suspension after adopting a district-wide framework for school discipline. The plan is striking in its simplicity: students are taught and rewarded for good (or "positive") behaviors, expectations are consistently enforced school-wide, and interventions are "tiered" so that the students who struggle most with the rules receive the most support (or, in some cases, more severe consequences).

What Perkins is describing is "Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports,"a well-established school-wide disciplinary program. It probably sounds commonsensical, and it is. That's one reason I've mentioned it favorably in the past: it doesn't in most cases require a radical departure from what schools and teachers are already doing, it only requires a concerted effort to do those things better.

Keep an eye on PBIS-type programs, which seem to be proliferating rapidly - at least in California. Not only is LAUSD implementing the program, my current school (not in LAUSD) uses it and my previous school in Oakland just began implementation as part of a district-wide experiment with both PBIS and Restorative Justice. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

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As a Restorative Justice facilitator I don't think PBIS programs are antithetical to RJ. But the fact of the matter is, no matter how well structured your classroom management and instructional method there will be conflict and harm in classes and schools. How will schools and teachers deal the conflict and harm when it happens? PBIS in not a tool for dealing with conflict; it is a tool for preventing it (which is a worthy goal).

A couple points of note, PBIS and punitive justice are related:
they both relay on external pressure,
they don't allow for youth input,
they don't allow for "victim" input,
there in no opportunity for real accountability.

Restorative Justice empowers both the victim and offender to "make things right." We avoid allegations of guild or innocence and focus on relationships and harm.

I agree that PBIS and RJ aren't incompatible. By the same token, though, PBIS does leave room for teachers to do much of that other stuff you mention - accountability, victim input, etc - and I've never seen a PBIS implementation in which teachers aren't doing those things at least informally.

I'd characterize both PBIS and RJ as systems for preventing conflict, and add that they both have additional purposes as well. But the question is: what is the best way to balance the trade-offs between different uses of limited school time. If PBIS can get substantial results with little (or no) net loss of instructional time, I'm not sure what the case is for adding or substituting RJ, which is both harder and more time-consuming to implement effectively.

PBIS has little to do with accountability, victim input, etc. If and when teachers do these things they are just "doing them." RJ provides structure and guidance regarding how these can most effectively be done with a whole school approach. There are great teachers who are in classrooms who have these approaches, but administrative approaches remain punitive. We are unable to reward ourselves out of conflict/harm.

And, the the balance of trade-offs with limited resources (money, time, human capital) pose significant constants on schools. Implementation is a significant challenge, but that doesn't change the size of the initial problem. I challenge schools and districts to do things differently, to dare bravely. To change how we treat harm. To change how we treat the "bad kids."

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.