By Julia Steiny
Xilian Sansoucy was hungry for leadership opportunities when she began her freshman year at Classical High School, an exam school in Providence. "I think it's exhilarating to present" in public, she said. A friend pulled her into an organization called Young Voices (YV) which specializes in just that, nurturing student leadership. In collaboration with other student organizations, leaders from YV increasingly make themselves known and heard around the state, advocating for issues they've agreed are important. Sansoucy took to YV like the proverbial duck to water.
Young Voices' training begins with gathering their new recruits into student-led workshops where they research a question and share their discoveries. In one of these exercises, Sansoucy's research on school discipline strategies revealed stark, even startling, differences between discipline at her old school, a private independent, and her new one, very much a public school. She explains that as an Asian-American, she chose Classical for its student diversity and "to get opened up to the real world." Part of that real world is Classical's traditional discipline system that relies primarily on suspensions and detention to control behavior.
She says, "But suspensions just postpone getting to a solution. Then the student gets suspended again, and the problem still doesn't get solved. Some students like suspensions because they don't like school. So how are suspensions helping?"
The one time she remember a fellow private school student being suspended, he was completely out of control with rage. She didn't know why he was so mad, but he was calm when he came back. His time away was more about cooling off than getting kicked out.
In the workshop on school discipline strategies, Sansoucy was able to put the words to her private school discipline: "restorative justice" and "restorative practices." If she misbehaved in her old school, she'd have to sit down with adults and discuss the issue until it was resolved or the circumstances restored. Problems got solved and kids were less inclined to misbehavior. So the disparities in approaches to discipline became an equity issue for her: her experience of private school discipline is that it works on teaching behavior with restorative conversations; public school kids get kicked out.
You and I might suggest that public school kids generally have more and tougher issues. Teachers have larger classes of these harder students. Sansoucy would reject these circumstances as reasons not to give the students the attention they clearly need. She feels that while public schools have many terrific teachers, they also tolerate teachers who just don't care and who let their students know that. When adults and students aren't listening to one another, or don't take the time to, they can't possibly develop empathy for one another. She believes that this lack of caring is feeds the punitive mentality.
Conversely, she feels that her private school teachers were so much more connected to the students that they noticed interpersonal tensions long before they festered into problems. When a girl-fight did blow up into open argument, teachers sat down with them after school for as many days as it took to get to the bottom of the issue. One girl was popular and the other resentful about getting left out of everything. "We started to see them getting along again and hanging out. I definitely believed that they (the private school) had the solution. If they'd ignored the fight, it would have gotten worse. The one girl was not wanting to come to school."
Sansoucy says, "The downside is that restorative practices take more time and dedication from the teachers. But it doesn't have to be too fancy. Being able to sit down in a circle with whoever has misbehaved, after school or in a classroom, doesn't cost extra. It's just about getting people on board. Once teachers and adults realize it's more efficient, kids will stop misbehaving so much, and there will be more learning time. It's just a matter of helping them visualize how this will play out. I've started spreading awareness of restorative practices."
Already as a sophomore, this plucky young woman now goes out and speaks in intimidating circumstances. She reports that her conversation with the Governor "was really nerve-wracking." Most recently she represented student voice in a speech to the annual Kids Count breakfast, easily the biggest political event of the year for those concerned with children and youth in Rhode Island. Among her other remarks to them, she said:
"Currently at Classical, our discipline system has been very old fashioned. But we can replace these punitive practices with restorative justice. No student should be suspended for being tardyâ¦ No student should have to get detention or suspension for something that easily could have been prevented by a simple talk with an adult, [allowing them to explain] why they had misbehaved, instead of expecting them to figure out for themselves what they'd done wrong. If high school students are expected to behave like adults, we need to be treated like adults."
She got a well-deserved standing ovation. If she is the picture of future leadership, we might do very well.
[Image: Peter Goldberg Photo]