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As Schools Try More Progressive Forms Of Discipline, The Focus Is On Discussion

Pittsburgh Public Schools is turning to more progressive methods of discipline, after finding that cut and dry methods, like Zero Tolerance, led to too many suspensions.

Back in the ‘90s, many schools started using those methods as a way to motivate kids to behave.

They put police officers in schools, along with metal detectors. They issued harsh punishments to prevent bigger offenses. 

It became a way of doing things, but opponents say rather than getting students to behave, it was just pushing them out of school. Now administrators shy away from those methods.

Pittsburgh Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Dara Ware Allen said the district has been shifting the student code of conduct toward more progressive discipline for several years. She said because of those methods, there was a 40 percent decrease in student suspension between 2011 and 2014.

But the disparity between who is punished persists. Just more than half of Pittsburgh’s 26,000 students are African American, but last year 83 percent of suspensions were issued to those students.

Allen said suspensions are necessary in some situations, but the district wants to avoid getting to that point.

“We knew we needed a, I don’t want to say revolutionary, but a very novel approach to build on what has been working, you know to continue to bring the suspension numbers down, but really be able to build community and relationships that were going to lead to more lasting change and really get at that disparity number,” she said.

The Obama administration has called for something known as “restorative practice.” It comes from the criminal justice system where offenders and victims sit down for mediation in order to repair the harm and restore the offender to the community.

The school district is using a $3 million grant from the Department of Justice to implement a similar model from the Pennsylvania-based International Institute of Restorative Practice in half of the district’s schools.

Institute director Keith Hickman said the program addresses misconduct before it starts. One way is direct communication.

“An example with students might be ‘I feel really proud when you contribute to our discussion because it helps us bring new ideas to the table.’ And a responsive way might sound like this, ‘I feel upset when you disrupt the class because it distracts us in the classroom from continuing in our learning,’” he said.

Administrators say the change of thinking is going to take time to figure out. The district will try the restorative approach for two years, followed by a yearlong study on its efficacy.