Texas Education Agency grants $521,000 for alternative discipline training

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The School of Social Work will begin instructing schools throughout the state on disciplinary methods alternative to suspensions and expulsions.

The Texas Education Agency granted the Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue in the UT School of Social Work $521,000 to offer training in 10 Education Service Centers to implement an alternative to “zero tolerance” methods. 

Institute director Marilyn Armour said the mission of Restorative Discipline is to replace suspension and expulsion and instead forge closer relationships among students, teachers and administrators to decrease school conflicts, such as bullying, truancy and disruptive behavior.

Armour said suspensions are harmful to school environments and do not improve behavior.

“Suspensions tell students we don’t want them until they fix themselves,” Armour said. “We don’t suspend students who don’t know math when they first start school, [and] we must look at behavior the same way.”

Maria Andrea Campetella, director of communications and planning for the School of Social Work, said studies have found that suspensions correlate to academic failure.

Armour and her team first implemented the Restorative Discipline program in Texas at Edward H. White Middle School, a school in San Antonio with some of the worst disciplinary rates in its district. 

The program yielded an 87 percent drop in off-campus suspensions and a 44 percent decrease in total suspensions in its first year. The success sparked huge demand from school administrators, and Armour’s team worked to make training available throughout Texas.

Melinda Cavazos, White Middle School counselor, said the program changed teachers’ perspectives.

“In the past, if a student acted out, they were removed,” Cavazos said. “Now teachers provide the space to talk about what’s going on and what we need to do. The goal is to stay in class and learn.”

The program implements “talking circles,” which seek to foster collaboration and to encourage students to speak openly, seek support and plan steps to repair misconduct, according to Armour.  

“Talking circles build classroom communities,” Armour said, “So, when there are challenges, students and teachers lean on the power of their relationships and understand the impact their behavior has on others in order to help change it.”

Armour said the program is distinct in that it requires others to get involved.

“If Restorative Discipline were to become the norm in schools, the most important thing we would see is more caring relationships, not just in schools, but in the community,” Armour said,