(NewsNation) — The concept of restorative justice is igniting debate about discipline in America’s classrooms.
Restorative justice rethinks how students are disciplined, empowering them to resolve conflicts on their own, in small mediation sessions, rather than suspensions and expulsions when they get in trouble.
Should you sit a student at home for a few days and suspend them if they are caught fighting in class or disrupting the classroom? Or should you have an open dialogue, a conversation where they are allowed to express themselves and explain their actions?
Betsy Combier defends students in school disciplinary cases. She says restorative justice only works when teachers and administrators do it the right way.
“We have to know what the right thing for a particular child is because every child is unique,” she said.
Saying the school discipline system ‘needs to be fixed,’ Combier said in some cases, there’s no real effort to understand why a student acts out angrily or violently in school.
But critics of the restorative justice concept say school administrators are taking the softer approach and abandoning suspensions.
In New York City, which has the nation’s largest public school system. suspensions of five days or more given out by principals and superintendents dropped by more than 42% from the fall of 2017 to the fall of 2021.
Combier says it’s become a numbers game for the district.
“The more kids that are thrown out, the less funding they might get,” she said.
NewsNation contacted the New York City Department of Education and was told, “We do not tolerate violent behavior in our schools. And when incidents occur, principals are empowered to swiftly take a range of disciplinary actions, including suspensions.”
In the case of Elba Rodriguez, she says the district took the wrong action when it suspended her son.
“The school system, the DOE, Department of Education, has failed. My son,” she said.
Rodriguez’ son is in special education. She says he should have had a behavioral intervention plan. But instead, when he acted out in school, he was suspended.
“I feel that they need to train teachers, staff how to deal with children with disability,” she said.
New York City Department of Education data shows that Black and brown students are suspended more frequently than any other group. And that’s another reason why many principals may be reluctant to suspend students because they don’t want to be labeled racist.
Suspension or restoration are currently the two options. And depending on who you ask, they both can be effective.