Studies show that high school dropouts are eight times more likely to end up in jail or prison than high school graduates. Dropouts also earn less pay, pay less in taxes and are more likely to require public assistance. That’s bad for California’s future.
Keeping students in school at least through high school graduation is good for public safety and good for our economy. But what to do when high school students are disruptive or pose disciplinary challenges to teachers or school administrators? Depending on the severity of the misbehavior, the response is often suspensions and even expulsions.
That was the path Le Grand Union High School District followed until five years ago when the district began a new approach.
The Le Grand Union High School District is comprised of just over 500 students. Dissatisfied with the impact such traditional, punitive discipline was having on the school climate, educators and administrators decided to try a different approach and began to implement a “restorative” model of discipline. Rather than banishing the offending student from school, “restorative” strategies aim to help identify personal or family issues a student may be having that often are the root cause of the disciplinary problems at school.
Restorative discipline is a research based technique for handling conflict, emphasizing accountability by addressing the harm caused by disruptive behavior and providing each party to a conflict the opportunity to listen and try to find collaborative solutions to prevent future disciplinary issues. By listening and learning more about what might be going on in a disruptive student’s home or personal life rather than simply responding with punishment, a student’s negative behavior can frequently be vastly improved.
In law enforcement such strategies are sometimes derisively dismissed as “hug a thug,” and, as District Attorney, I’ve occasionally had that bias. But results can and should be persuasive and the results at Le Grand Union High School District are nothing short of startling.
In the 2010-2011 school year, before a restorative discipline model was adopted, Le Grand High School suspended 80 students and expelled eight. That meant that over 10 percent of the entire student body was being either suspended or expelled and too much teaching time was being diverted to disciplining students.
Five years later, in the 2014-15 school year, after restorative discipline was implemented, those numbers had plummeted to 12 suspensions and zero expulsions. Test scores have improved and more students are graduating. That represents success by any definition.
Besides improving the atmosphere on campus, restorative discipline programs pay many other dividends. Researchers at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara recently concluded that over 4,600 high school students statewide drop out from each graduating class because they were suspended. This costs California an estimated $2.7 billion in increased criminal justice costs and lost revenue over the course of these dropouts’ lives.
In Merced County the study estimated that suspensions were to blame for 69 students dropping out of school, which will ultimately cost the county and state $41 million in criminal justice services, reduced economic productivity and higher health care costs.
Make no mistake, implementing a restorative discipline model at Le Grand was a challenge. Change never comes easy.
Some educators and parents initially were suspicious and we had to move hearts and minds. But the results speak for themselves and most of our teachers have enthusiastically embraced the new model.
The most common grounds for suspension in California schools are “disruption” or “defiance,” and anyone who has worked in a classroom knows just how immobilizing just one student’s conduct can be to an entire classroom. We want to support our educators in their mission to teach.
At Le Grand High we have concluded a restorative discipline model achieves the goals we all seek for our schools: reducing expulsions and suspensions; raising graduation rates and test scores; improving student and teacher morale.
Keeping kids in school, off the streets and on a path toward high school graduation is simply good policy for Le Grand and all of Merced County. We believe restorative discipline has helped us achieve those goals.
Javier Martinez is principal of Le Grand High School; Larry D. Morse II is Merced County District Attorney. They wrote this for the Sun-Star.