Marilyn Armour

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,

Photo Credit: M. Andrea Campetella | Daily Texan Staff

In-school suspension rates at a Texas middle school dropped 75 percent over two years as a result of an initiative that disciplines students through community accountability created by a UT researcher. 

Philip Carney, principal of Ed White Middle School in San Antonio, contacted UT researcher Marilyn Armour because he said his school had one of the highest rates of suspensions in the district. According to Armour, who is a professor in the School of Social Work, the current zero-tolerance policy that many schools incorporate in their discipline is detrimental to the growth of the students.

“The initiative is an effort to move away from exclusionary policies that fundamentally punish students by expecting them to know what to do [after consequences],” Armour said. “This leaves students feeling discouraged and demoralized from being a part of the school effort and results in great retention issues and dropouts.” 

Rather than harshly disciplining students who are acting up, the initiative is aimed at fixing behavior problems through community discussions. Carney said a key factor of the initiative is holding students accountable for their mistakes by communicating with those involved, which he said he believes will avoid isolating them from their peers. 

“We hold preventive, proactive group-building activities to talk about issues to the community, which doesn’t mean someone is doing something wrong per se, but has to do with checking in and being a community,” Carney said. “Another way we strive to resolve issues is chat with all the students who might be in conflict.” 

A six-year study, “Breaking Schools’ Rules,” produced by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, found that out of nearly 1 million Texas students between 7th and 12th grade, almost 60 percent of them have been suspended. The restorative discipline techniques have taken effect across the country, but Ed White Middle School is one of the first schools in Texas to implement the techniques, according to Armour. 

Krystal Howell, radio-television-film freshman, said when she was in middle school, she saw a pattern with the same kids being constantly suspended. She said she believes it was a result of zero-tolerance discipline not motivating the students to change their habits.

“I feel like with the right amount of community involvement, it might have a better impact because with zero tolerance, if these kids think that the system doesn’t really care about them, they’ll continue to misbehave,” Howell said. 

Carney said he believes the initiative’s success at his school will be the beginning of a paradigm shift in the way discipline is approached in the public school system, which could include sanctions from state and federal offices if schools do not comply with the removal of old policies.

“What I see from people I’ve connected with is that we very well may be going towards another change in education,” Carney said. “It’s sort of like when the paddle went away — I think there’s going to be a big increase in this practice within the next five years.”

Justice Janine P. Geske

Photo Credit: Marquette University Law School | Daily Texan Staff

Restorative justice programs offer an opportunity for both the offenders and the victims of crimes to move forward, but the programs also help communities, Janine Geske, former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, said at an event on campus Tuesday.

Geske, who is now a law professor at Marquette University, said she has been involved in restorative justice programs for more than 15 years and has seen how much these programs can help often-imprisoned offenders as well as the survivors of the crimes years afterward.

Geske said she has worked with restorative justice including groups usually consisting of 25 imprisoned men and women. Geske invites members of the community such as judges, CEOs of large companies, members of the media, volunteers and victims to talk to the group about how they have been affected by crimes.

Geske also helps facilitate individual conversations between the offenders and the victims.

“We meet first with the survivor and have a conversation with them about what they’re hoping for,” Geske said. “There’s often a desire to tell the offender the deep impact that has occurred … there are often questions, particularly on homicides.”

Restorative justice programs are about harm, Geske said. She said the programs don’t just address criminal actions but can be used in schools dealing with bullying, college athletic programs and communities.

“The use of restorative justice in both public and private schools is growing … and I think it will become part of the culture,” Geske said.  “We need to address all the issues that are facing these kids as they come to school … and finding restorative approaches for them are not only going to resolve conflict and make them feel safer, but give them tools to work with in the future.”

Social work professor Marilyn Armour said UT does not have a restorative justice program. Armour said she helped create a program for Edward H. White Middle School in San Antonio and has seen great results.

“We implemented a program there a year ago … and we reduced out-of-school suspensions 87 percent and in-school suspensions 30 percent,” Armour said. “There’s a lot to be hopeful about and look forward to, but we as a society just have to put our investment there.”

Allyssa Milan, who attended the talk, said she is concerned about the growing number of people in prison, and sees this program as an outlet for them to discuss their remorse and other thoughts about the crimes they committed.

“Being able to give a voice to the offender is so important because they are human beings as well,” Milan said. “Helping them reconnect with humanity is how we can move forward in creating a more just world where both survivors and offenders can really heal.”