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theory of change paper

sshameti's picture

Silvi Shameti

Schools in American Cities

Spring 2015

Systemic Theory of Change


The school-to-prison pipeline has been widely recognized as a phenomenon occurring in the United States, and one of the ways it is consistently actualized is through the ways students are disciplined in classrooms. Students that are suspended are much less likely to finish their high school career, and even less likely to pursue further education. this, combined with the fact that some students are disproportionately diagnosed with learning disabilities and therefore placed on slower-paced educational tracks, is a big contributing factor to the so-called “achievement gap.” Although suspensions and expulsions have often been the go-tos for many schools when dealing with students that are involved in conflicts, many places are also pursuing alternative ways of dealing with discipline. The idea of “restorative justice” has begun to be adapted to the school environment as a “disciplining” strategy that focuses on getting to the root of conflict rather than doling out punishments, and I believe this method will have a significant effect in cutting off the school-to-prison pipeline.

In the 1980s, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published a report called “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” Using scare tactics and catastrophic language, it described a supposed state of violence in education, which unfortunately inspired a host of legislation targeted at reducing this violence. For example, the federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which is one of the pieces of legislation that gave birth to the idea of “zero tolerance” discipline, came out of this report. Ronnie Casella writes in "Being Down": Challenging Violence in Urban Schools that zero tolerance then led schools to become more militarized, with more armed policemen, and stricter penalties for violating rules, which led to an increased number of suspensions and expulsions. Just in the single school year of 1997-1998, the United States saw 3,930 students expelled under this policy; a large number of these students (43%) were sent to an alternative school (Casella, 54-55). However, the process doesn’t end there; Casella writes,

“There is a general belief that once a student has been suspended or expelled, and all has been done according to due process and appropriate school policy, students', reinstatement ends the punishment. Unfortunately, suspension and expulsion do not end with the tenure of the sentence. At Brandon High, as at other high schools, students had to sign a probationary contract and go before a committee—sometimes called the ‘screening board,’ sometimes the ‘reinstatement committee,’ and at Brandon High, the ‘screening committee’—that determined students' school placements after being forced out” (56).

My theory of change would no longer require a screening board to be in charge of disciplinary decisions; the screening board would not be necessary because students should not have to get to that point in their school careers. Instead of taking a punitive approach to discipline, schools should be taking a restorative approach, and my placement is one example of this. Although suspensions and expulsions still exist as part of a larger framework of discipline instituted by the district, at my school they are considered a back-up reserved only for extreme cases. Instead, when a conflict occurs in a classroom or on school property, the people involved in the conflict (whether it be students, teachers, administrators, or some combination) will come together to form a circle, along with a school counselor who mediates the conversation, and they delve into what caused the problem, how each party experienced the conflict, and what can be done to rectify the situation. And this is not just a niche, innovative practice confined to one area; according to an article by Deva Dalporto on “We Are Teachers,” “Suspensions at Bunche High School, a continuation school in a high-crime, high-poverty community of Oakland, Calif., dropped by 51% last year. Disrespect for teachers has declined; the school is safer. Students are more focused on their studies and many have stopped cutting class.” The article describes the process of restorative justice as a “chance to come forward and make things right.”

There are several ways to do restorative justice disciplining. One approach, taken by Bunche High School (mentioned above) involves three tiers: prevention, intervention, and supported reentry. The first tier establishes circles as a common classroom practice in order to normalize them and build a culture around them: “They have regular classroom circles in which the students sit in with a restorative justice coordinator or a peer facilitator and share their innermost feelings” (Dalporto). This means that circles are not used just for disciplining purposes but as an exercise in forming connections with each other. In fact, my placement also regularly uses circles during homeroom in order to create bonds between the students in the homeroom and the teacher leading it.

Once this practice is seen as part of the community and something that students, teachers, and administrators can all buy into, the second tier, intervention, can become useful. Intervention is used when a conflict actually occurs. Intervention can involve using tools like mediation and possibly inviting family to be a part of a circle, or having larger group circles. This is usually when discussion of the conflict happens; parties focus on questions that are productive and lead to an exploration of the conflict (such as describing the incident in detail and what emotions or events surrounding it could have contributed to the incident) rather than posing any accusations or trying to place blame.

The last tier, supported reentry, is for students who actually “have been out of school due to suspension, expulsion, truancy or incarceration. Oakland schools aim to create a ‘wrap-around’ supportive environment when these students return. The goal is to set the kids up for success no matter what their past” (Dalporto). Not only do restorative circles provide a way to stop suspensions and expulsions from happening, but they can also serve to re-integrate students that have experienced the harsh parts of the educational system.

This process is not an easy one to institute; building a school culture takes a massive concerted effort on the part of everyone involved, and can take a very long time to stick. My placement school is interesting because it started with a new group of ninth graders, which made the process both more and less difficult. It was more difficult because at the age of fourteen, most students had experienced traditional forms of discipline, and took some time to feel as though restorative circles were worthwhile or actually served their purpose. In addition, there was the question of over-using circles, or not using them in the imagined way; one student once mentioned that circles were being used for too many minor offences and not enough larger offences. Establishing a precedent for this practice is a process that the whole school community has to commit to, but that also means that it’s an opportunity for everyone to bond and create something together. That is why starting with a new group of ninth graders actually helped the process along, because everyone could start fresh and decide that they were going to build this community together. The ideal, however, would be to start this practice early enough (like, say, kindergarten) so that it truly becomes embedded as a principle both in the students’ minds and in the teachers’ minds.

This practice could also stem the flow of some diagnoses that place students in special education classrooms instead of examining behavior more in-depth; many students that exhibit violent, aggressive, or “disruptive” behavior are sent to a guidance counselor not to talk about their behavior but to be analyzed and diagnosed. In addition, most of these students may not have many opportunities to explore these feelings in a controlled environment by someone who has training (like a guidance counselor). Problems that are caused by that student’s environment may therefore get obscured by what is deemed a “learning disability” instead of being recognized as an everyday stressor and a huge influence on that student’s life.

Besides creating mutual respect between teacher and student, restorative circles help to create students that are more in tune with their own feelings, thoughts, and ideas, and are therefore more receptive to learning and contributing to the classroom environment. Students that are given the opportunity to explore negative feelings or express them in a healthy way often grow up to be more well-adjusted citizens. Allowing students to take ownership over their actions also teaches responsibility in a way that punitive measures have always attempted to but never achieved.



Casella, Ronnie. " Being down": Challenging violence in urban schools. Teachers College Press, 2001.


Dalporto, Deva. "Restorative Justice: A Different Approach to Discipline." We Are Teachers. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.



jccohen's picture


You make a strong argument for the efficacy of restorative justice (as opposed to conventional discipline in the form of suspension) as a mode of addressing conflict within a school community.  And the questions of when this should begin and how it might support teacher-student relationships are important ones.  I’d like to hear more about how it is that you see this intervention as supporting teaching and learning more broadly.  For example, how might restorative justice help students learn math?