My Life as an NYC Teacher
Chapter 91: Where "Restorative Justice" RulesMott Hall Bronx High. School
Kathryn Malloy, Principal
I spent my first 6 ATR weeks from Sept. 2 to Oct. 17, 2014 at Mott Hall Bronx High School. If you want to see the natural outcome of applying “restorative justice” as an alternative to conventional discipline to an entire school, Mott Hall is the place to look. The inmates there have full control of the asylum.
The original principal of this small high school must have seen the writing on the wall when he took a lucrative contract to administrate a school on the Saudi peninsula. Maybe he saw restorative justice on the horizon and knew that his odds of survival were better in the Middle East. Maybe the same applies to his long time A.P., who took a similar deal this year, leaving principal Kathryn Malloy in charge with only one assistant. The writing on the wall must have been in perfectly legible graffiti.
I was there for the parent teacher evening that took place on Wed., Sept. 17, 2014. The faculty gathered for pasta in room 263 between 4 and 5 o’clock to fortify themselves before the parents’ arrival. Ms. Malloy took this opportunity with most of the teachers present to deliver her message about parent-teacher conferences. She apologized for not addressing the issue sooner but said that she wanted this message to go out: “We are raising these kids together.” If anyone objected, it wasn’t vocalized.
“Restorative justice” is defined as a method of “repairing harm” caused by criminal behavior. See, for instance, Restorative Justice Online . This is proposed for public education as an alternative to traditional discipline, which revolved around detention and suspension. Coincidentally, the number of detentions and suspensions a school reports now adversely affects a school’s rating. Therefore it is in the interest of the school to lower the number of detentions and suspensions meted out. Eureka! A rationale.
But is it in the interest of education? Is it in the interest of the students and is it in the interest of the teachers? Professional development in schools is now being done around this concept. Of course, it isn’t really anything new. The first steps in the “ladder of referral” always have been to try to mediate situations by talking them out first as teacher-student, then as teacher-parent-student, and then as teacher-counselor-student. This was never called “restorative,” although it was certainly justice.
Now there is a euphemistic name for it that can be implemented as school policy - not as a means of improving the environment in the classroom but as a means of reducing detentions and suspensions in order to raise a school’s rating.. In a New York Times article published April 3, 2013 and titled “Opening Up, Students Transform a Vicious Cycle,” Patricia Leigh Brown discusses the implementation of restorative justice in Oakland schools. Leigh Brown writes:
A body of research indicates that lost class time due to suspension and expulsion results in alienation and often early involvement with the juvenile justice system, said Nancy Riestenberg, of the Minnesota Department of Education, an early adopter of restorative justice. Being on “high alert” for violence is not conducive to learning, she added.
Being on “high alert” for violence certainly isn’t conducive to learning but this is the state that well-behaved students find themselves in when the violent offenders are not removed from the classroom. I wouldn’t disparage a body of research with which I’m not familiar any more than I would question lies, damned lies, statistics and double blind studies. But no doubt there is a correlation between disciplining misbehaving students and early involvement with the juvenile justice system. Disciplining misbehaving juveniles is the purpose of the juvenile justice system. It is not the purpose of the educational system.
Restorative justice is appropriate within a family group where forgiveness is essential. That’s why Principal Malloy is trying to create the illusion that teachers are surrogate parents. Parents don’t suspend their kids although the temptation is often great. She wants her staff not to educate but to nurture their charges. These surrogate sons and daughters, by the way, are the very students on whose performance the surrogate parents are now being evaluated.
Teachers are not parents. Teaching is not parenting. Students should receive the help they need but within the appropriate forum. Schools exist for the purpose of educating pupils and there are many pupils who are in need of education rather than restorative justice. These students don’t need surrogate parents. They need teachers and classroom environments where criminal behavior doesn’t have to be mediated. That means applying conventional discipline, removing, that is, to those who cannot or will not function in a conventional classroom.
In another New York Times Article, this one by Paul Tullis and published Jan. 4, 2013, the concept of restorative justice is discussed in relation to the criminal justice system:
Most modern justice systems focus on a crime, a lawbreaker and a punishment. But a concept called “restorative justice” considers harm done and strives for agreement from all concerned — the victims, the offender and the community — on making amends. And it allows victims, who often feel shut out of the prosecutorial process, a way to be heard and participate.
What is the purpose of applying “restorative justice,” a concept developed through and for criminal justice, to the public education system? Is this a tacit admission that the public education system is nothing more than a penal colony? I’ve often lamented the fact that in many of the large, old public school buildings in the Bronx, room numbers are stenciled on the walls. Stenciled. It feels like a prison on many of those buildings. Maybe there is more to it than symbol.
It’s time to admit the truth about many urban classrooms: the percentage of dysfunctional students makes them unteachable. No amount of differentiation, grouping and restorative justice is going to change that. I’ve spent 14 years in Bronx classrooms in 6 different schools and the story is always the same. They are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. By focusing on the lower 1/3, the upper 1/3, which is the percentage that deserves to be “career and college ready,” are being neglected and the neglect is blamed on the teacher rather than on a system and a society that won’t admit the truth about itself.
Teachers are being scapegoated, pure and simple. The failure of the student is blamed on the teacher’s supposed inability to differentiate or engage or group or plan. In the vast majority of cases, however, the failure of the student is the result of the student’s inability to perform to standard. There are as many reasons for this as there are poorly performing students but an ineffective teacher or lesson is rarely the cause.
Getting back to the Mott Hall Bronx restorative experiment. During my six weeks there I personally witnessed two students taken out during the school day in handcuffs by NYPD. (I am aware of a third but didn’t see it personally.) I witnessed a near riot in the gym when the Phys. Ed. teacher was absent. Students refused to stop playing sports even when directed to stop by the deans. A rim was torn from a backboard in front of these deans. A bench was torn out of the locker room. Principal Malloy showed up and moved everyone out of the gym and into the cafeteria for the remainder of the period. There were no consequences, restorative or otherwise, for the blatant insubordination.
Restorative justice is making many schools an unsafe environments for students and teachers alike. Applying a concept designed for criminal justice is an insidious and invidious tacit admission that the purpose of public schools in major urban areas is as much to incarcerate and prepare for incarceration as to educate. But these two goals are mutually exclusive.
Traditional discipline is meant to facilitate the education of the well-behaved, functioning students by removing from the classroom those who disrupt lessons. It is meant to be a punishment for those who disrupt class and to be an incentive to change disruptive behave so that those not in need of restorative justice or traditional punishment can learn.
As bad it is to neglect the education of the top one-third, it is worse to create an environment where misbehaving and criminal-minded students can wreak their own brand of justice on students and teachers alike with no concern for the consequences of their actions. For many students, this is a license to continue their delinquent antics with nothing to fear other than a cuddly mediation with surrogate parents, i.e., teachers, and misguided principals who have swallowed hook, line and sinker the DOE scam that if they are disciplining their misbehaving students, they are doing something wrong.
Columnist Thomas Sowell published some cautionary thoughts on this latest trend in educational reform. Although he looks at the discipline issue from a racial perspective, his comments about education and discipline are relevant. I give him the last word: Thomas Sowell NY Post