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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

'Restorative' backlash: Legislators propose tougher school discipline

A Florida high school student attacked a teacher's aide, sending her to the hospital, on Feb. 24.

Legislators are "moving to make it easier to kick disruptive students out of school" in response to "a pandemic-era surge in school gun violence and student misbehavior" that some blame on lenient discipline policies, reports Patrick Wall on Chalkbeat.

Legislation is moving forward in Florida, Texas, Nebraska, North Carolina, West Virginia, Arizona and Nevada, he writes.

Teachers' unions support some of the proposed laws.

In Nevada, the state union said the legislation is necessary to protect educators, who have expressed “alarming concerns about personal safety.” Clark County, the state’s largest school district, was rocked by several incidents of student violence last year, including the brutal attack on a Las Vegas teacher for which a 16-year-old student was charged with attempted murder.
The Nevada bills would roll back a 2019 law that required schools to adopt “restorative justice” practices, which aim to replace suspensions and expulsions with mediation and relationship building.

Kentucky's Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, signed a bipartisan bill that lets schools “permanently remove” disruptive students and place them in alternative settings, including online programs.

More than 20 states enacted "restorative justice" policies over the last decade, according to an analysis by the Center on Gender Justice & Opportunity at Georgetown Law, Wall writes. Schools were under heavy federal pressure to reduce expulsions and suspensions.

Now those policies are being blamed for the rise in disruptions and dangerous behavior.

In one of many letters from educators backing the new bills, Las Vegas teacher Kristan Nigro wrote that her school took little action after one of her kindergarten students hit other children and threw scissors at the teacher.
“It is not fair that a student can walk into a classroom and be violent and disruptive without any consequences,” wrote Nigro, who is on the leadership council of the Clark County teachers union. She blamed the lax discipline on restorative justice, calling it “just a fancy buzzword and a complete failure.”

"Other educators say most schools never fully enacted the discipline reforms due to inadequate training and resources, making it difficult to address the underlying issues that can cause students to act out," writes Wall. "Machelle Rasmussen, a social studies teacher in North Las Vegas, said her high-poverty high school has nearly 3,000 students but no social worker."

Restorative justice, done well, is time consuming, writes Meredith Coffey, a former high school English teacher, on The 74. She's seen it work at a school where small classes -- she had only 40 students in all her classes combined -- made it possible to develop strong relationships and make time for "student-teacher-advocate-counselor" conferences to discuss problems.

"Having a strong team of social workers or school psychologists also helps a ton," writes Coffey. Again, it takes a lot of adults to make it work.

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