Decriminalize Misbehavior and End the Pipeline to Prison

Guest post by Amber Schroering

A teacher friend of mine recently wrote that a former student is under investigation for severely beating his girlfriend’s seven-month-old son, who is not expected to live. Upset and angry, my friend struggled to reconcile this terrible news with the memory of his student: 

I remember this man as a 14-year-old freshman who had just been kicked out of his mother’s house. He hadn’t done anything wrong; his mom’s boyfriend just didn’t like him. At 15, he got emancipated and was trying to figure out how he could devote time to the high school football team, his studies, and to a pizza place job in order to earn enough money to afford his own apartment. With no support outside of the school, he quickly found such a delicate balance to be unsustainable. 

He never stood a chance. His teachers and counselors knew he needed help, and we did what we could. At some point, however, he slipped through the cracks, dropped out, moved, etc. (There’s always a story, but teachers are rarely privy to it.)

From what I heard, he developed a drug problem, which isn’t at all surprising, considering the difficult life he had. And that life is about to get a lot worse. What he has allegedly done is horrendous, and I would never dismiss it as anything less. 

Let us remember, however, that this tragedy is a byproduct of generations of abuse and neglect, and when a member of my community falls, I am complicit as well. We all are. Monsters are made, not born.”

When I read this post, I was struck by that all too familiar feeling that we simply aren’t doing enough to help our most vulnerable students. Though educators cannot right every societal wrong, most of us know that we can do more to help students, especially those with emotional, socioeconomic, and behavioral challenges.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve worked with our school community on implementing effective Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). I have discovered two key strategies that leverage this system toward the success of all students, especially our most at-risk:

Collaborative Problem Solving

At Brownsburg East Middle School, a best PBIS practice we have found is Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS). We were inspired to take this approach by the work of Ross Greene, child psychologist and author of Lost at School. Greene tells us that “kids do well if they can” and believes that an educator’s primary role is to help students overcome obstacles that give rise to negative behaviors.

CPS says that for every challenging behavior, there is a lagging skill or unsolved problem, and our Brownsburg East staff works hard to understand and address these underlying complexities for each student. For example, some of our newer students to Brownsburg have historically responded to our teachers in ways that have been perceived as disrespectful. As part of the problem solving process, we take the necessary time and attention to empathize with students and brainstorm with them to determine what skills might be missing. We have learned that often our new students haven’t been explicitly taught ways to respond that are acceptable in our school environment. We then help the student to understand why this is a problem and invite the student to be part of the solution as they practice this new skill in various environments.

Restorative Discipline

Another key to building PBIS systems that work is the consistent and pervasive use of restorative discipline by all members of your staff. Restorative discipline asks students to turn their wounds into wisdom. Instead of focusing on a contrived consequence for a rule that was broken, we focus on the harm that was caused, the natural outcomes of the student’s decision, and how the situation can best be rectified for all.

In this approach, we ask students to consider not only the negative effects of their decision, but also some of the positive aspects. For example, imagine a student is in your office because he yelled at a teacher in the middle of class, halting instruction for a couple minutes. The student comes to you still angry or in fight-or-flight. Restorative discipline doesn’t absolve him from consequences, but it also doesn’t continue to reproach the already-escalated student. Instead, you take the time to help the student reflect on his behavior. Yes, he needs to understand that he shouldn’t yell at an adult, especially in the middle of instruction. He also needs to see that he showed courage and was bold to speak up. How might he apply that courage in a proactive way to make a positive difference next time?

CPS and restorative discipline practices help the PBIS system reach our most at-risk students and help schools stop criminalizing student misbehaviors.

To learn more about how to implement an effective PBIS system that has at its heart collaborative problem solving and restorative discipline, check out the Indiana Association of School Principals Fall Conference presentation.

Talk with your staff and consider how your school might apply these best practices to overcome the obstacles students face and decriminalize misbehavior.

Amber Schroering is an assistant principal at Brownsburg East Middle School and is the 2016 Indiana Assistant Principal of the Year. She presents regularly at state conferences and hosts site visits to teach others how to build a successful PBIS model like the one her team has built at Brownsburg East.

2 Comments

  • Michael Thomas says:

    Powerful post, Amber. Thanks for sharing! What PD have you done with staff to train them with these practices?

    • Amber Schroering says:

      Hi Michael. Thanks for the kind words. Yes, we have led a lot of PD with our staff on these topics. DM me on Twitter (@amberschroering) with an email address or another contact and I can send you tons of resources!

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