By Steve Hunley


The Knox County Board of Education has been supposedly wrestling with a new policy for disciplining students.  The Board has been urged to adopt “restorative policies”, which focus less on punishment than welcoming those students who commit offenses once deemed appropriate for suspension with open arms and attempting to reason with them.  Some of the people pushing these policies really wish to see most everything decriminalized and claim students of color are victims of inherent bias by the school system.  The notion of whether the student in question has actually committed an offense is immaterial.

Board member Mike McMillan actually went to work and drafted an amendment that truly dealt with the problem.  McMillan proposed that any person inside the system – – – teacher’s aide, teacher, administrator or even the superintendent – – – found to have discriminated against any student on the basis of race, gender, religion or sexual preference is to be terminated.  McMillan in fact took it even farther, stating any employee of the Knox County school system who has been found guilty of knowingly not reporting any instance of discrimination faces termination.  That applies from the lowliest employee all the way to the superintendent of schools.  The McMillan amendment makes it virtually impossible for anyone to cover up any instance of discrimination in our schools and affords protection to students.

McMillan’s achievement deserves praise from those who worry about actual discrimination in our schools.  It will prove to be an effective tool in combating discrimination in the Knox County school system.  Still, the rush to adopt restorative practices is less about discrimination than the concept of superior rights.  Nor has it had the intended effect in school systems around the country.  Kevin Ahern, President of the Syracuse Teachers’ Association, recently wrote a letter saying the end result of the restorative practices approach to discipline has created a “systematic inability to administer and enforce consistent consequences for violent and highly disruptive student behaviors” which “put students and staff at risk and make quality instruction impossible.”  Apparently in some school systems even threats against teachers are ignored.  One teacher in Los Angeles stated, “I was terrified and bullied by a fourth-grade student.”  She claimed the student told her to “’Back off b – – – h’.  I told him to go to the office and he said ‘No, b – – – h, and no one can make me go.”  Another Los Angeles teacher sighed, “We now have a ‘restorative justice’ counselor, but we still have the same problems.  Kids aren’t even suspended for fights or drugs.”  The problems have spread in Orange County, California and are even worse in the Santa Ana public schools where authorities claim middle school students routinely smoke pot in bathrooms.  According to the Orange County Register teachers have been spit upon, pelted with eggs, and even threatened with being stabbed.  65% of teachers surveyed in the Santa Ana school district say the softening of discipline in schools is not working.

The Los Angeles Times received numerous letters to the editor questioning the implementation of restorative practices.  One citizen wrote, “the article on the Los Angeles Unified School District’s new discipline policy, which focuses more on ‘restorative justice’ and less on punishment, goes to the core of why public education has so deteriorated.”  The writer plaintively posed a very interesting question: “If a teacher cannot maintain discipline in the classroom, and if disruptive misbehavior cannot be prevented, then how can any student expect to learn?”

In Philadelphia, the talking circles encouraged by the restorative practices approach, doesn’t seem to be working.  One former teacher complained students misbehave and then dare teachers and administrators to remove them from classrooms, knowing nothing will happen to them.  Evidently one student boasted to teacher Allen Zollman, “I’m going to torture you.  I’m doing this because I can’t be removed.”  Zollman readily acknowledged the problem, saying, “The less we are willing or able to respond, the more they will control the classroom, the hallways and the school” in comments made before the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights.  Another teacher in Oakland, California reported to the Christian Science Monitor that a student who set another student’s hair on fire went to a comforting restorative talk rather than facing a suspension.  Yet there are folks in the movement to implement restorative justice who hail the system in Oakland as a model for the program.  A teacher in Portland was punched in the face by a student, requiring a visit to the emergency room, but was advised by a superior not to press charges, noting how difficult it would be for the student to overcome a criminal record.  The teacher, a woman, was told that being white and the student a minority, she might have played a role in her own assault for holding unconscious racial biases.  Clearly, it’s not justice for all.

The message is not hard to discern.  Teacher Paul Bruno, who spent time in the talking circles required by restorative justice practices, noted it “can encourage misbehavior by lavishing attention on students for committing infractions.”  Bruno concluded, “the circles may unwittingly allow already assertive students to leverage their social dominance even further inside the classroom.”

And don’t assume every violent act in a public school is reported.  An audit conducted by the State Comptroller’s office in New York found fully one third of all violent acts in 10 New York City schools went unreported.  The Comptroller’s report found that over 400 incidents that should have been reported went undisclosed.  School systems have little incentive to accurately report such things, as underreporting gives the appearance of safety.

The end result in many localities has been a growing number of private and charter schools, a decision made by parents who were horrified by schools becoming less safe for their children and the learning environment deteriorating rapidly.  The same thing will likely happen in Knox County, yet it was Mike McMillan who actually expanded the coverage to protect many more students from real discrimination.