Does the DOE have a disciplinary system anymore?

This year I haven’t had access to whiteboards/chalkboards in any of my classrooms. My principal got rid of the old ones, some of which were almost brand new, others of which were a bit blemished (but still usable). The point of getting rid of the old ones was to make room for new ones. But the new ones never came. Now, we’ve been teaching for more than half of the year without whiteboards at all. We’ve taken the issue to consultation, but what can they do? We can’t turn back time….the old whiteboards are at the dump! We just have to wait until the DOE can process and install the new supplies. Since in two of my rooms, smartboards don’t work either, that’s made teaching certain concepts…well…tricky.

It occurred to me the other day that the same thing has happened in terms of discipline. We had a system in place in most high schools where, when students did something that blatantly required disciplinary action–like assault another student or teacher–they got suspended. It turned out that when kids got suspended, they often got into even more trouble outside of school. It also turned out that there was disproportionate punishment for minority students. To make matters worse, a lot of the ways that schools were dealing with student infractions fed into the school-prison pipeline. So, the DOE rewrote the disciplinary code. It became harder to suspend students–which would be a good thing if they had also found another disciplinary solution.

But they didn’t find another disciplinary solution. And that’s a problem, because even with all the issues that come with suspensions, they still served a function: to address serious infractions on students/faculty/the school community. Over-discipling is an issue, sure. But have you ever tried to teach a group of students who were just part of a fight? It’s heartbreaking. The students can’t focus; many of them are shaking and scared. If fights happen a lot, they worry about the inevitability of getting caught in the crosshairs themselves. It is traumatizing to be a victim of violence; and it’s traumatizing to repeatedly witness violence. With discipline pretty much not used anymore, students fight a lot more. That means students are victims of violence a lot more. And it means students have to focus on their coursework after the persistent shock of seeing their classmates hurt a lot more.

Clearly, we can’t just let violence happen and do nothing, simply because of the negative effects of suspensions. We need some sort of solution. Enter Restorative Justice, which aims to find creative socio-emotional solutions to disciplinary issues by promoting a sense of dialogue, healing, and community. In theory, this sounds great. And New Action, along with the rest of United for Change, support it. As we write in the Community, Safety, and Equity section of our platform, we aim to: 

“Confront the school-to-prison pipeline. Expand effective, bottom-up restorative justice programs and hire UFT-represented restorative justice coordinators. Increase funding and support for culturally responsive education and extracurricular activities.”

Notice, we’re talking about building infrastructure for restorative justice. We tossed out suspensions for good reasons, but overwhelmingly we didn’t replace them with anything. In too many places, restorative justice is just a buzzword. People aren’t trained to properly implement the strategies, and what that means is where restorative justice is done at all—it’s often done badly and ineffectively. This has made a lot of teachers suspicious of its merits, and–if this is how the DOE plans to do restorative justice (i.e., essentially not doing it, just pointing to it)–then we have good reason to be suspicious. United for Change wants to hold the DOE to actually building up its Restorative Justice functionalities. You can’t just take down the whiteboards, and pretend everything is OK because there’s a smartboard in the room if the smartboard doesn’t work; you have to make sure there is something working to take the whiteboard’s place.

And one last point. There’s one place in schools where we do still see the word ‘disciplinary’ – in interactions between principals and teachers. Yes, students are no longer disciplined, but teachers are. In schools with abusive principals, we are constantly threatened with disciplinary action – and disciplinary action can lead to letters-in-the-file, suspensions, and expulsions with real and serious consequences on our mental health and livelihood. Much of the time, disciplinary action is also weaponized (illegally) against unionists. Maybe, a good place to start with restorative justice is by replacing the disciplinary system on teachers with such a program. After all, our PDs generally model how to teach a given technique. Let’s model a more equitable and humane disciplinary system for our students by using a more equitable and humane disciplinary system for our teachers. I can guarantee that getting rid of our own abusive and inhumane disciplinary system will help get teachers to buy into Restorative Justice programs for the students. 

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