There has been an unprecedented surge in violent crime in Maryland and nationally in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The violence children were exposed to in their communities has carried over into behavioral problems in schools.
The school system’s primary response to violence is suspension, which pushes students from the safe haven of a school into neighborhoods that often accelerate their descent into delinquency. More than a third of suspensions in Maryland were for nonviolent offenses such as class cutting, failure to wear the school uniform, or talking back to the teacher (1). There is little to no evidence to support the efficacy of suspension for changing delinquent behavior, and longitudinal studies show that discipline practices that exclude children from school are linked to poor academic performance (2). By pushing children out of school, suspensions reduce classroom time and positive social interaction of the most vulnerable children. In a city as troubled as Baltimore, school can be a child’s only safe haven, and by pushing children into violence ridden communities, suspension increases children’s exposure to negative influences that encourage a life of crime
Reducing suspension is critical to increasing equity and reducing violence in schools. In a restorative circle, all parties who have a stake in a conflict sit in a circle with a trained facilitator and are provided with the opportunity to speak. Most importantly, each person is asked to describe how the behavior in question affected him or her personally. The actor and his/her colleagues are responsible for listening to participants describe the harm they have experienced and for accounting for their actions by telling their own side of the story. Often participants are unaware of the ways in which their behavior has affected others. At the conclusion of the restorative circle, all participants decide upon a plan to ensure that the harm caused will be repaired. Schools that employ whole-school restorative practices regularly conduct circles among all teachers and students, making these practices an integral part of the school day and providing a channel for student concerns to be heard. In the process, students learn conflict resolution and self-awareness skills of lifelong value.
Restorative practices also assist educators in creating positive relationships with students by shifting the adult in a conversation or conflict from a “punitive authority” to a neutral facilitator. Student discourse and accountability rather than adult administered punishment is at the center of the action, which helps foster individual responsibility and a school-wide sense of community. City Springs Elementary/Middle School and Hampstead Hill Elementary/Middle School are among a small, but growing number of Baltimore City schools that have successfully implemented whole-school restorative practices. By implementing restorative practices and addressing the root causes of behavioral problems, these schools have improved classroom management and reduced suspensions.