School has been back in session in the U.S. for awhile now and officials are dealing with bullying issues once again.
There is spotty evidence that some districts are looking beyond Zero Tolerance policies and automatic expulsion or suspension of kids who bully their classmates. In these districts, there is a conscious policy choice to use restorative practices first instead of punitive practices such as expulsion and suspension.
In the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, School District, schools are implementing a comprehensive change program to address bullying, known as the SaferSanerSchools Whole School Change Program, developed by the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP).
Rather than reflexively opt for immediate expulsion or suspension of kids who bully others, these districts are attempting to bring the bullied and the bully together with all their classmates into restorative circles to address the misbehavior as a community. The goal is accountability and community restoration rather than isolation, alienation, suspension, expulsion and stigmatization. It’s a first step toward interrupting the schools-to-prison pipeline.
It’s a risky proposition, and it takes more time than a rigid “throw the bully out” approach. But it holds the real possibility of keeping the bullying offender and the bullying victim together in community, rather than placing one more child in the school-to-prison pipeline. The statistics on expulsion and suspension are clear: each incident of suspension or expulsion increases the child’s chances of ending up in prison.
Programs such as SaferSanerSchools requires participation of the entire school community, from students and teachers to administrators, parents and even cafeteria and janitorial staffs. Successful implementation requires involvement of the entire community, since bullying affects everyone in the school community.
In one dramatic example:
Suspensions, expulsions, fights, bullying and other forms of poor student behavior dropped at Freedom and Liberty high schools during the 2011-12 school year, documents show.
The improved discipline picture is a reversal of 2009-10 and 2010-11 when infractions went up in the Bethlehem Area School District‘s two high schools as part of a district-wide increase of 36 percent.
Compared with the 2010-11 school year, suspensions dropped 20 percent to 978 in 2011-12. The number of students in suspension three times or more went down 43 percent to 493 at the two high schools over the same time frame, according to the Code of Conduct report, which separates offenses into three levels of severity.
Restorative practices and restorative circles allow the victims to be heard, the harms done to them to be recognized. Restorative practices even permit the bully to say why he or she was aggressive in the first place. Using restorative practices, all members of the community share in the process, expressing their experiences of the harms that have been done by the bullying of their fellow community members. All members of the community, all stakeholders, share a part in the communal response.
Ideally, even the parents of the bully and the bullied are present for the restorative circle conference. For restorative practices to have their maximum effect, all parties participate in these restorative circles, or accountability sessions, as the community asserts its values. Ideally, the bully and the bullied are restored to community and neither is stigmatized or ostracized.
For more information about restorative practices, contact:
IIRP Graduate School
531 Main St.
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA