The Shame of Suspensions: Implementing Restorative Justice in Schools

SoJust Education has always been informed by the work of bell hooks and Paolo Friere who argue that we need to critically examine the systemic, institutional and structural dimensions of power relations in school communities. The Western educational system is part of an oppressive framework that functions within a culture of violence, so it is not surprising that student conflict and misbehaviour is handled by issuing suspensions and expulsions which cause further harm. When restorative justice methods are applied they do not seriously address the role power plays, and administrators usually approach problems in schools as starting with those causing the harm. This diluted form of restorative justice operates as a strategy to manage student behaviour, and fails to attend to the core principles of community, healing, and justice upon which restorative justice stands. The effects of such dilution feed systems of violence and oppression instead of challenging them.

Teachers argue rightly so that they are ill-equipped to facilitate restorative justice practices, because it requires more resources (skills and time) than they have, and they are experiencing burn-out. As a result, schools are either engaging with restorative tools in superficial ways that do not produce substantive results, or they are simply not engaging with them at all. Instead, schools are relying on suspensions and expulsions for short-term, quick-fix solutions that are based on antiquated ideas of how to keep schools safe. A strong sense of community is the best protection against harm and violence – isolating and suspending kids is not protection.

Ontario’s schools operated under the Safe Schools Act from 2001-2008 and has resulted in a zero-tolerance approach to bad behaviour. This has led to so much confusion – is it zero-tolerance for behaviour, or zero tolerance for the student? Some behaviour has mandated suspensions, and this leaves no room for nuance or contextual consideration; for example, an Ontario student was suspended for bringing a butter knife to school to spread cream cheese on his bagel. Suspensions are being used for misbehaviour, disruption, attendance issues and non-compliance. We need to explore why these issues are showing up in the classroom in the first place. Suspensions indicate poor school climate, so this is a whole school endeavour that includes investigating school policies and procedures (formal and informal) around dealing with conflict, bullying, disruptive behaviour, and general communication across all levels of the school organization.

Zero-tolerance thinking has led to an over-representation of students of colour being suspended. In his article An Education in Gentrification Justin Panos reports according to figures released by the Toronto District School Board, black students accounted for 37 per cent of suspensions in grades 7 through 8 despite making up only 15 per cent of middle school students, while 31 per cent of all high school suspensions targeted black students, who made up less than 12 per cent of the high school student body. The dropout rate for black students in Toronto is 22.8 per cent. Furthermore, almost one in five suspended students in Ontario have a learning disability or special need. Suspensions are a sanctioned way to discriminate against students who are already marginalized. The message that schools send is: You are not like us. You do not belong here.

What does it mean when suspensions are increasing for kindergarten students? What are we teaching students? When we exclude students we promote further ruptures to relationships, and we place them in further harm of experiencing more violence. When the suspended kids are already experiencing racism or ableism, then we are further perpetuating the cycle of oppression, and the cycle of trauma. Research shows that students who are suspended are more likely to engage in violent behaviour and to drop-out of school. In essence, punitive discipline places the whole community is at risk, and this is the opposite of community building. Community building requires schools be at the centre, but these schools need to be safe for everyone.

Suspensions can lead to a lack of belonging which relates to feelings of shame. As James Gillian notes in his book Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, punishment increases feelings of shame and humiliation, and shame provokes rage. It can strip a person of their humanity and sense of self, which can then lead to hopelessness. Shame is more likely to be the cause of destructive and hurtful behaviour than it is to be the solution, and yet we continue to rely on shaming practices to resolve wrongdoing or conflict. When we are shamed we often resort to violence either to ourselves or to others. It is when fear, anger or sadness are infused with shame that they become chronic states or escalate to terror, rage and despair. Shame deactivates attachment. Those that are most in need of attachment tend to refuse it. When schools and communities engage in shaming practices such as suspension and expulsion they are feeding a culture of violence – students who are suspended are more likely to engage in violent behaviour and to drop out of school. These students (and their trauma, shame and rage) get channeled into the criminal justice system strengthening the school-to-prison pipeline.

Some people will argue that suspensions align with the concept of accountability. A restorative approach to accountability challenges punitive, stigmatizing methods that continue the cycle of violence that holds certain people culpable – youth of colour, youth experiencing poverty, under housed youth, or youth with disabilities. Punitive forms of discipline means they are being held accountable to a society that has put them “at-risk”, they are at risk due to being consistently denied equal access to opportunities, placed under surveillance, rejected, stigmatized, and criminalized. Last year, the Toronto District School Board closed 60 schools that served mainly marginalized students living in poverty and students requiring special needs programming. What will happen to this youth once they transfer to new schools?

We need to transform conflict at the school level, and create school climates where students feel included, connected, and safe. We must learn ways to work with students who are disruptive while assuring them they are still part of a community, so they do not experience more shame and isolation. Schools can be spaces that encourage humanization, where students learn healthy relationships with adults and peers and where they learn how to connect – not how to separate and isolate. Connection and community are essential to learning. Restorative tools offer structured ways for participants to identify and articulate needs, and to engage with each other in deeper ways. They are essential to empathy education, community building and creating relationship. Promoting a sense of belonging is a key component of violence prevention, and as bell hooks reminds us the purpose of education is not to dominate or teach kids to become dominators. The purpose of education is to to create the conditions for freedom, where students can participate in transforming conflict into healing and justice.

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