Keeping students out of the school-to-prison pipeline

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by David Sheridan

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Jeffrey Farr teaches English at a school that is often the last stop for students who have not been able to succeed in the other schools within the district. Many of the students at Antietam Academy in Hagerstown, Maryland are going into or coming out of the juvenile justice system. To reach these students, Farr employs restorative practices in his classroom.

“I realized that I had to quit worrying about control and think about relationships. When we don’t focus on who is to blame and who is right, we can start to focus on what we have to do to make things better, and that is my goal,” said Farr.

He explains that the restorative practice is not a disciplinary model but a leadership model. The teachers at Antietam Academy were one of the first groups to go through the Whole School Implementation training—and continue to work on full implementation as staff and students change. Restorative practices allow students and teachers to build a healthy community in the classroom and offer every student the opportunity to be a part of it. Students learn how to resolve issues in the classroom and avoid being moved into the juvenile justice system. Restorative practices effectively break the school to prison pipeline.

By contrast, exclusionary school discipline policies—referrals, suspensions and expulsions—are pushing kids, especially minority students, out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system at unprecedented rates. What’s more, research shows exclusionary policies do little or nothing to improve overall school climate. You lose the student and things don’t get better in your classroom or school.

ACTION: Every student deserves to learn in a supportive school environment. Sign the pledge and commit to ending the school to prison pipeline.

While there is ongoing research on the long-term efficacy of restorative practices, Jeffrey Farr has seen fewer students in his classroom move into the juvenile justice system. “It is not easy, and I work at it every day. But when I am a good practitioner I have fewer headaches. I am a restorative practices evangelist,” said Farr.

For anyone interested in beginning to implement restorative practices in their classroom Jeffrey Farr recommends four steps:

  • Use affective statements. Many times these statements will start with “I.” I am feeling ignored or I am proud of you. Expressing yourself in this way helps your students understand the impact of their actions and develop empathy.
  • Understand the power of with. Students are more likely to change behavior if their teacher takes an action with them rather than does something to or for them. The fundamental hypothesis of restorative practices is that people are happier, more cooperative and productive and more likely to make positive changes when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to or for them.
  • Develop relationship circles in class. Build relationships with your students and understand the relationships they have with each other. After creating a circle culture, you can use these relationship circles to help solve problems.
  • Listen. There is power in listening. By hearing what students are actually saying you can better understand the role the student, others and you play in creating a respectful and effective learning environment.

There are a number of resources available on-line to get more information about restorative practices and its implementation. To learn about how restorative practices work in schools check out Saner Safer Schools and Restorative Practices: A Guide for Educators.

Reader Comments

  1. At last! I am a retired teacher who taught for 41 years in public schools in both Long Beach and in Garden Grove, Calif. I loved teaching.. truly loved teaching (5-6 grade). I believe whole heartedly in the idea of teaching students in a “supportive school environment”. I always wanted my students to “want” to come to class… to enjoy the learning, and to be participants in the whole learning experience. And then “No Child Left Behind” came along and so many of the supportive, positive activities I believed in were abandoned for teaching to be tested! YUK, YUK and YUK again!! Schools need to be a haven of supportive learning for every child when they enter the classroom. I truly believe that those who love to teach should not be usurped by publishers who tell the teacher how to teach. Curriculum is necessary, but teachers themselves are the ones dealing with their classes each year. They know that each class is unique, with unique learners whose needs will vary from year to year. I was NEVER bored, NEVER!! I always changed the curriculum in ways that would enhance the class I had that year. Each year was a challenge because each child and, therefore, each class was unique!! Please bring the love of learning back to the classrooms across this great nation. It is sooooo necessary!!!

  2. As teachers we can’t control the environment our students come from, but we can make a long term difference in the lives of our students through the relationships we build with them. Caring adults in their lives do make a difference, even when their home lives are difficult.

  3. When are we going to start holding parents accountable? It’s time we start taking these kids’ parents to task! Why is it that the schools, teachers, etc. are all blamed for this “school to prison pipeline”? What about the fact that so many of these kids that need these restorative practices are raised in appalling and deplorable conditions? They spend WAY more time at “home” than in school, where this pipeline supposedly starts. Instead of constantly blaming the education system, why not start with the lack of intact families and the lack of “parenting” that goes on in the place these kids spend most of their time? Anybody who is on “the ground” in education knows this is true!

    1. Many of the kids don’t have PARENTS. Schools are the front line in many cases. Huge percentages of my elementary school kids have incarcerated family members. Schools & teachers should shoulder absolutely zero blame but in many cases we are the only thing close to a solution.

    2. While this is certainly true, it doesn’t help the kids that are victims of their situation. As educators our job is to give every student a chance to succeed and respecting them as individuals with potential and value, regardless of there home life, is key. Our job is to meet them where they are and encourage growth from there, not complain that the parent should be getting them to a certain point. This does not help today’s student. We can however change the future by teaching our students with respect and concern and meeting them where they are to promote school success. Nobody wins when blame is the primary focus to solution.

    3. Okay. Blame the parents. It’s their fault. Do you feel better now? How will you “take them to task?” The problem is that many of them were victims of this same system of exclusion and punishment. The idea is that this can help break that cycle.

  4. I think these ideas are great! But it starts much earlier. Generally, I doubt American schools across the board have enough supports built into them to guide dysfunctional families to improve their performance. Kids who don’t know respect at home are not going to use it at school. When so many of these kids are together in a ‘traditional’ school setting of 20-30 per classroom, it is nothing but chaos. Along with putting a leadership model in place, we NEED to lower these numbers. If we are to reconstruct dysfunctional kids and save them from their home environments, we need to have the correct number of kids in a classroom. Private schools tout their low student/teacher ratios as their main selling point. Kids need one-on-one with their teachers. It is not likely they are getting it in classes of 27-35 primary grade classes. The good students and average students suffer because the chaos slows everyone down and the quality of the learning environment does not support a pleasant atmosphere for learning. Teachers today have to spend too much time redirecting behaviors and are off task more than they are on. Whose fault it this? We keep blaming the teachers and calling them ineffective. What teachers need are seamless supports in place to guide students with behavior problems. They need to work in ‘time out’ rooms with staff to aid them in reflecting on their mistakes and who are also able to support them as they learn in an environment where they are getting the extra attention they are crying out for…academic, counseling, (emotional)…etc. It is not the classroom teacher’s job to have to manage the emotional needs of all the students (acted out inappropriately) and still teach at the same time.
    Until America decides to hire more staff, our schools will continue to decline. Today’s kids are not the same kids of the 1980’s. Politicians and many in administration want to keep the same old structures in place for misbehavior. Sorry. It ain’t working…..

  5. In what school is a job guaranteed upon graduation? The skills they are developing will help them succeed in their future endeavors in eduation or in the job they are choosing.

  6. This is what we do in primary grades 🙂
    However, with the RIGOR we are using now, it is becoming MORE difficult 🙁
    We need to pay MORE attention to what is DEVELOPMENTALLY appropriate in delivering our INSTRUCTION, so that we don’t damage the RELATIONSHIP building that is CRITICAL to social development…ESPECIALLY in PRIMARY grades!

  7. I agree wholeheartedly with these steps as a humane way to treat kids. However, schools alone will never be able to stop the pipeline. It is a social problem that stems primarily from the family, community and culture that kids grow up in.

  8. Do they have a guaranteed job when they graduate? Isn’t that the real problem that needs to be addressed?

    1. An education comes first. Staying out of the criminal justice system comes first. Developing positive relationships with those in authority comes first. Becoming competent and confident comes first. With those foundational blocks in place, the job and the ability to keep the job comes next. And it does come!

    2. No one has a guaranteed job. In fact if there is then the drive to get there is extinguished. This is evident in oregon where minimum wage is so high. Working for increase in pay rarely happens, partly because employers are forced to pay employees such a high starting pay. Guarantee causes work ethics to decline.

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