Julia Steiny: Our Punitive Mindset Blinds us to Effective Discipline

Dear President Obama, Millions of us are encouraged by your demand that schools reduce suspensions for black males. No research shows that suspensions teach kids the social skills they need to keep them from getting tossed out of school in the first place.  None.  Suspensions label a kid “bad,” which often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, [...]

Dear President Obama,

Millions of us are encouraged by your demand that schools reduce suspensions for black males.

Julia Steiny

No research shows that suspensions teach kids the social skills they need to keep them from getting tossed out of school in the first place.  None.  Suspensions label a kid “bad,” which often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, even a badge of honor.  Students who already experience failure at school welcome a few days’ vacation on the couch with a TV.

But!  Beastly behavior in class ruins teaching and learning.  When feral or entitled children clown around, start fights or lash out at teachers with impunity, everyone suffers.  Teachers and parents of the so-called “good” kids feel that removing the disruptor is the only real weapon they have against chaos.

Here’s the over-arching problem:  We’re a deeply punitive culture.  We’re so zealous about our faith in the effectiveness of punishment, we don’t seem to care that research routinely argues that punishment doesn’t actually work.  It alienates the kids who most need help.  Trying to control kids’ behavior with external means — force, hurt, humiliation, school police — often backfires and makes things worse.  Even so, we take bad people out of their community, sequester them with other offenders, which makes them worse, only to send them back into a community that didn’t know what to do with them in the first place.  Makes no sense.

And yet we believe.

Because if we’re not punishing, we’re enabling.

Actually, enabling and punishment are two sides of the same harmful approach to kids.  American parents have become hopeless enablers.  They shield their kids from consequences, hoping to stay pals.  Good parents must be the bad guy sometimes.  It’s a ton of work and stress to teach kids that independence comes with responsibility.

Most people agree that enabling is harmful — when it’s other people’s kids.  We all detest entitled brats.  But unless someone lays a hand on her, we don’t question the harmful effects of cowing a child into compliance, controlling her by fear.

Punitive beliefs run so deep in American culture that even you, a credibly empathetic person, fall under the spell.  As President, you issued an order designed to curtail the punitive harm disproportionately meted out to black males.  It implied consequences.  But is punishing schools and teachers who are punishing the kids qualitatively different from banishing kids?

Or are we — even you Mr. President — taking the need for punishment so for granted that we’re fish not seeing the water?  America has the largest prison population in the world, both by rate and actual headcount.  We have 4.6 percent of the world’s population and 22 percent of the world’s prisoners.  Increasingly, we remand juveniles into adult prisons.

Between 1974 and 2006, school suspension rates grew from 3.7 to 6.9 percent, spiking around 1997 when the zero-tolerance policies were taking hold.

Meanwhile, the high-school graduation rate clawed its way up to only 72 percent last year, leaving many kids with poor prospects of ever engaging positively with their communities.

So I wanted to point out that the very reports that warn about the destructive effects of punishment often recommend restorative justice as a solution.  Few Americans even know what that is.  Internationally, restoration is huge.  Whole countries like Australia, New Zealand and most famously of late, Norway, have redesigned their judicial and social systems according to its principles.  I urge you to google it.

True, restorative justice does not satisfy our blood lust for revenge.  Instead, it holds offenders accountable by making them face the effects of their actions on their community.  Together, victims, offenders and the community negotiate restitution.  Low-level offenders can have a clean slate.  Some people are incapable of self-control and must be locked up.  Conventional judicial systems handle these cases.  Still, crime rates in these countries have gone down, as has recidivism.  The communities are healthier.

Conversely, in America, 60 percent of incarcerated juveniles are held for non-violent crimes.  Communities are struggling.

Over the last three decades many restorative initiatives have gotten started here, but faded away.  Punitive forces take over when a charismatic leader leaves or a grant runs out.  A striking exception is Vermont, whose restorative justice program, started in the mid-1990s, yields among the lowest juvenile and adult incarceration rates in the nation.

Instead of pushing kids out, restoration asks what could be pushed in?  What resources need to go into the homes, classrooms, schools and ‘hoods so every child will be warmly welcomed as emerging adult?

Imagine para-professionals working in classrooms – or families — teaching social skills where needed.  Parents quit enabling.  Disruptive kids learn community-appropriate skills.  Classroom communities learn how not to trigger troubled kids.  Removals might still happen, but the focus is still on getting the school, family or community to work as it should.

America spends 74 billion dollars on adult incarceration alone.  Better to spend some of that money to re-teach parenting, basic social skills and civilized negotiation.

As the President of the United States, you could help willing listeners to shift their efforts to restoring kids — to mental and physical health, to grade level at school, to good graces with the law.  Cultivate restorative practices, and suspension rates will drop like a stone.

Unquestionably, black males are most harmed by our punitive mindset.  But really, it’s bad for all of us.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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