Northampton Takes Step Toward Being ‘A Different Type of School System for Discipline’

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By Stefanie Jackson – The Northampton school board made a unanimous decision June 27 to research restorative discipline and how it may be implemented in the county’s public schools, after school board member Nancy Proto and community members made the case that punishment does not change behavior.

“What we’re doing is not working … and also causing harm,” said Arthur Carter, a retired obstetrician from Nassawadox.

When administrators suspend students, they essentially “withhold education … as punishment for childhood behavior, perceived and real,” he said.

Carter said restorative discipline, aka restorative justice, can “create a different environment in the schools. Kids look out for each other. It’s about relationships, not … punishment.” 

“We all agree there is a problem,” said Elvin Hess, a Machipongo resident who has assisted with the Northampton schools’ robotics program.

Hess said that kids are not being treated fairly when they’re disciplined in school. His concern was based on student conversations he had overheard.

The issue is “highly suppressed,” Hess said.

The students “were told exactly what we don’t want to hear … ‘We’ll take care of it, it’s none of your business, everything is OK.’”

He referenced a news article stating that in Northampton, “two and half times as many students are suspended compared to the state average.” 

“I don’t know what more we need … to get our act in motion,” he told the school board.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) affect “brain development, which consequently impacts learning as well as behavior,” Proto said. That’s why punishments often don’t work.

“Punishment is most effective for kids that need it the least,” kids that come from loving homes and strong relationships, she added.

“We have a professional, ethical, moral responsibility to address this and do something differently.”

Proto made a motion that a school/community multi-disciplinary committee be formed to research restorative practices in other school districts and make recommendations for implementation.

School board member Jo Ann Molera seconded the motion and reminded her peers that school discipline is a nationwide problem.

Some children have “so many strikes against them” that “the school system is going to have to be the one shot that they have for success,” she said.

“I’m not saying that family members are not pro kids but I think, unfortunately, the modeling that goes on in the home is less than adequate, which is precisely why we’re having … the issues that we are. … It’s not going to hurt us to look into this and research it and discuss it and model maybe for these kids … what needs to go on on a daily basis in the school setting.” Molera said.

School board member Randy Parks noted that Northampton has a lot of first, second, and third year teachers who, due to lack of experience, “don’t have a clue” what to do about the behavior issues and don’t have a stable work environment with plenty of experienced teachers to advise them.

That stability is just as important to the students, Molera pointed out.

None of the Northampton students recognized last year for their service in school leadership positions planned to become teachers, because they didn’t want to deal with the behavior issues, Proto said.

“More and more and more, society has placed the school system and the school teachers and the staff in raising and teaching kids everything they need to know,” said school board chairman William Oakley.

“We are not the organization that can solve it all. … It’s going to take the community as a whole,” he said.

Northampton schools began teaching social-emotional skills in the lower elementary grades this year, with plans to include higher grades in future years. The school division also plans to hire two social workers.

“We are moving toward becoming a different type of school system for discipline,” said Superintendent Eddie Lawrence.