Matt Flagg, a student of Sarah Zale at Cascadia Community College in Bothell, Washington, read and responded to the YES! Magazine article, “Where Dignity is Part of the School Day,” by Fania Davis, a story about using restorative justice circles in schools in lieu of zero-tolerance punishment. She shows how giving a students the chance to tell his or her story can help teachers and administrators get to the root of a behavioral problem, and ultimately keep kids in school and out of jail.
Writing Prompt: Describe a memorable moment of when you or someone you know was disciplined at school. Was everyone given the chance to tell his or her story? Imagine you have the talking piece. What would you say to the teachers and school administrators involved about how the situation was handled? What would you say to teachers and school administrators in general to encourage them to treat all students with genuine dignity and respect?
The Punitive Blanket
At my middle school—and I would suppose at most schools in America— there existed a specific and rather simple system of punishment. Namely, the idea that if a kid is involved in any sort of rule-breaking act, no matter the context, that kid and all the other kids involved must be punished. This was always a point of contention among students, but not one contested by the staff. Perhaps this is because it created a system, which despite its questionable fairness, allowed school punishment to be easily carried out, straightforward, and mindless. In my opinion, punishment should never be mindless or arbitrary; there should be thoughtful reason behind it. This sort of punitive blanket used by schools around the country results in alienated children and detached teachers.
An example of this from my past is the story of a friend of mine. Let’s call him George. George was always a nice guy, but he wasn’t very socially aware, and often suffered because of it. He was a constant victim of verbal abuse and occasional pranks. One day, the jokes went a bit too far and George snapped. He lunged at one of the kids who teased him, and wrestled with him on the ground until a teacher pulled them apart.
The next day I found out that both George and the kid who teased him had been suspended—George for five days and the other kid for only three. This seemed and still seems like a great injustice to me, particularly since I witnessed the persistent teasing and practical jokes George went through on a daily basis. The worst part is that it was difficult to approach a teacher about this problem because it would have linked that person with the incident and given them a good chance of also being punished. If I could have talked to them, I could have let them know the background behind the incident and protested the unfairness of the punishment system. Everything has context; no crime is committed without a back story. It’s time for people to remember that before they automatically mete out punishments.
In the end, George continued to be teased for quite a long time, even after returning to school. During George’s suspension, the students who bullied him spread rumors about him and he wasn’t even present to defend himself against the rumors. This is a sad example where the school’s discipline system failed a child when it could have tried something more positive and sustainable as described in Fania Davis’ YES! Magazine article, “Where Dignity is Part of the School Day.”
Restorative justice shines a ray of hope on discipline and healing in American public schools. I would gladly trade a blanket of punitive injustice for a talking stick that allows people to share their truth.