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Answer Sheet: A Program to Cut School Suspensions in Chicago Worked Very, Very Well. Here’s How.

Last year, the Biden administration issued new school discipline guidelines aimed at reducing high rates of suspension and expulsion for students with disabilities. This year, it directed public schools to comply with civil rights laws when imposing out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and school-based arrests because of concerns that Black, Latino and Native students faced harsher punishments than their White and Asian classmates.

According to a story written by Post colleagues Moriah Balingit and Donna St. George:

Researchers, including those with the federal government, have for decades documented how schools treat students of color differently than their White classmates when they misbehave or break the rules — disparities that can often not be chalked up just to differences in behavior. Students with disabilities are also treated differently than those without them. In the 2017-2018 school year, Black students accounted for 15 percent of enrollment nationally in K-12 public schools, but 38 percent of students who had been suspended out of school, according to an Education Department report. That same year, students with disabilities made up about 13 percent of the student body, but constituted a quarter of the students who received out-of-school suspensions.

Because of these disparities, the restorative justice movement has been growing in the past few decades in public schools. There is no consensus on definition or approach to such programs, but they are a broadly multipronged approach to resolving conflict that seeks to repair harm done by providing opportunities for victims, offenders and communities affected by crimes to communicate about the causes and impact of those crimes and to find ways to repair the harm.

Research on their effectiveness has been mixed, depending on the structure of the program and fidelity of implementation, but supporters note that there is no scientific evidence that the hard-line disciplinary approach has been effective. One program that has been showing success is in the Chicago public schools, as explained in this post, written by David Kirp. He is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of numerous books about K-12 and higher education, including “Disrupting Disruption: The Steady Work of Transforming Schools” and “The Education Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know. A former journalist, Kirp was a member of President Barack Obama’s 2008 transition team.


By David Kirp

A decade ago, school suspensions had rocketed out of control, more than doubling since the 1970s. In 2012, approximately 3.5 million students in PreK-12 were suspended, losing more than 11 million classroom days. The reason for this increase was the widespread adoption of a “zero tolerance” policy.

Suspending students, the rationale went, held the “bad apples” accountable while giving their classmates the chance to learn, free from disruption. But as educators took a close look at the cost of the zero-tolerance approach — more trauma, lower achievement and a higher probability of criminal behavior among those who were suspended — they began casting around for alternatives.

In the Chicago public schools, the increase in suspensions was even more dramatic — there, the number nearly doubled between 2004 and 2013, when 58,000 students, nearly 15 percent of the total enrollment, were kept out of school.

There had to be a better way, school administrators concluded. Like their counterparts elsewhere, they decided to test a very different approach, restorative practices (RP), sometimes referred to as restorative justice. By encouraging self-reflection and empathetic listening, RP is designed to restore or transform relationships between victims and offenders.

The impact of RP isn’t limited to the students who are directly involved. It builds a sense of community within the schools. “‘Identity, restoration, community’ — those are the RP bywords,” said Ben McKay, the director of Restorative Practices and Student Discipline Support at Chicago Public Schools.

RP isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Depending on the situation, it may mean bringing the victim and victimizer together; engaging students who have gone through similar experiences, whether as victims or offenders; or organizing a family or friends circle. The goal is to hold students accountable for misbehavior without disrupting learning — theirs and everyone else’s.

As Cynthia Treadwell, the executive director of the Office of Social & Emotional Learning for the school district, said, “The focus is on the environment, on building norms, making students the agents of change. Instead of booting out a student, we ask, ‘What’s happening for you?’ Sometimes we bring in classmates, sometimes we engage the family, working to undo parents’ distrust of the school.”

RP is not kumbaya.

“If, for instance, there’s a fight in the cafeteria, parents want to know what we’re doing about it,” McKay said. “Then, security goes in with our social-emotional team. There’s a fine balance between people’s feeling that an immediate solution is necessary and the importance of social emotional learning.”

“Safety,” he said, “is about relationships. It comes from a place of trust.”

“In 2013-14, we tested RP in the lowest-performing schools,” said Jadine Chou, the Chicago school district’s chief safety and security officer. “We recruited a coach who worked with the principal and teachers, and the numbers of suspensions plummeted.” The practice was rolled out across 73 high schools, and by 2017, the number of students suspended had plummeted to 13,000.

Now, McKay says, “RP is baked into strategic planning — the leadership recognizes that we have to do things differently.”=

Chicago Public Schools relies on meticulous evaluation, not hunch, to determine the success of any new program. The district has had a long and productive relationship with the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which has appraised promising strategies on issues as varied as coronavirus pandemic learning loss and the travails of at-risk high school boys.

The evaluation of Chicago’s RP program — “the first credible estimates of the effects of large-scale implementation of restorative practices in an educational setting,” according to the researchers — confirms their experience. RP decreased out-of-school suspensions by 17 percent. The number of arrests on school grounds declined by 35 percent, and the number of arrests when students were away from school fell by 15 percent.

School climate, as reported by students, also improved — they felt a greater sense of safety, increased trust in their teachers, less disruption in their classes. They were more likely to feel that they were members of a community.

Educators often look for magic bullets, and while it is tempting to view RP as the solution to the problem of student discipline, that is not the case. As Treadwell noted, “RJ is just a piece of the puzzle.”

What’s more, as with any innovation in education, how it is implemented is critical. In Chicago, intensive coaching made all the difference, while RP has been ineffective in districts that did not include such support.

The Education Lab study shows that when RP is effectively implemented, it can make a marked difference. That’s good news for school districts — and for students as well.


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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

David Kirp

David L. Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of numerous books about K-12 and higher education, i...