School Board Members Bristle at Negative Spin on Discipline Questionnaire

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By Stefanie Jackson – Northampton school board members Jo Ann Molera and Nancy Proto are concerned that restorative justice, an alternative form of school discipline that could be used to reduce high suspension rates, was unfairly characterized in a survey recently given to teachers.

“I was a little disappointed that the introductory part … took a negative spin,” Molera said.

Students are often punished for bad behavior with in-school and out-of-school suspensions and receive little to no rehabilitation.

Restorative justice focuses on the relationships between students and their peers and teachers, and it seeks to repair the breakdowns that may have caused the unwanted behaviors.

The survey included a cost analysis that stated a restorative justice program could cost $300,000 or $400,000.

Most of the 60 teachers who took the survey “weren’t concerned about the cost,” said school board Vice Chairman Maxine Rasmussen.

Only two teachers said they would prefer the money to be spent otherwise. One suggested hiring a behavior therapist and another wanted a raise, she said.

But Proto said the survey “was absolutely designed to solicit negativity.”

It sent a message that restorative discipline is “going to be more work, it’s going to be more money (spent), it’s going to be more professional development.”

Proto objected to the committee giving the survey without the school board’s approval. She pointed out that when she chaired a committee on teacher retention, the school board reviewed her committee’s survey before it was distributed.

Only two teacher comments were supportive of restorative discipline, according to Proto. She believed the teachers who took the survey did not have an adequate “working understanding” of restorative discipline to make an informed opinion.

Before completing the survey, teachers were required to read a book on restorative justice. Proto read the book previously, but it wasn’t until she attended a training session on the topic that she understood how it would work in a school setting, she said.

She asked why the program would cost between $300,000 and $400,000.

Rasmussen and school board Chairman William Oakley said the program would require an additional employee at each of Northampton’s four public schools.

“Says who?” asked Proto.

“No,” objected Molera. “It’s really a mindset, an approach that you take” on student discipline. Simply changing that mindset would not cost $300,000 or $400,000, she said.

“I recognize fully that we have … some really problematic kids, and they come from some really screwed up backgrounds, and there’s really just no way we’re going to resolve all those issues.”

But there is a way to change public perception of those children and what they can accomplish, Molera said.

Proto objected to the way in which the survey questions were asked, implying that they contained vague wording.

The survey asked if the discipline methods currently used in Northampton schools are effective. “Effective for whom?” Proto questioned.

“The teacher,” Rasmussen answered.

“What about the student?” Proto asked.

Rasmussen said more than half of Northampton teachers are satisfied with current discipline policies and procedures.

Yet more than half of Virginia teachers disapprove of zero-tolerance discipline policies, according to a survey administered by the state department of education, Proto said.

Teachers may find the current method of discipline effective because “the kid gets out of the room. … But in the long term, it’s not working for the student because we’re not teaching them anything,” she said.

Molera suggested considering restorative justice a “differentiated approach” to discipline.

“It’s important for us to remind ourselves that each of these kids is an individual, and sometimes the cookie-cutter approach … is just not going to work.”

Rasmussen cautioned her colleagues, “Don’t assume that this committee” won’t say “let’s try it  (restorative justice) and let’s see if it works for us.”