Opinion: Gwinnett’s new discipline practices can’t be rushed

Gwinnett Superintendent Calvin Watts speaks during a community town hall on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022, hosted by students, civic groups and elected officials. The purpose was to discuss ways to make Gwinnett schools safer. (Christina Matacotta for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Gwinnett Superintendent Calvin Watts speaks during a community town hall on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022, hosted by students, civic groups and elected officials. The purpose was to discuss ways to make Gwinnett schools safer. (Christina Matacotta for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

In a guest column, Daniel Malec, executive director at the Georgia Conflict Center, offers advice to Gwinnett County Public Schools on how to change the culture around student discipline and involve the community in the process.

In the past few months, some Gwinnett parents, teachers and students have criticized the district’s shift to restorative justice practices that emphasize getting students to recognize what they did wrong, why they did it and how to make it right with those affected. Opponents contend the new approach steals time from classroom instruction and creates unsafe schools.

Malec served as the Georgia Conflict Center’s restorative schools program manager for four years, primarily assisting the Clarke County School District and Gwinnett. He is now overseeing the development of a restorative justice diversion program in partnership with the District Attorney’s Office serving Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties.

He worked for more than 20 years in youth development, youth violence prevention and intervention, trauma awareness and resilience, conflict transformation, restorative practices and school administration.

By Daniel Malec

A recent look at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution leads to a sense the embrace of restorative practices in Gwinnett County Public Schools is off to a rough start, if not failing outright. In December, GCPS leadership opted to pause the districtwide implementation of restorative practices.

Given the urgency of responding to decades of overly punitive discipline practices and increases in violence and disruptive behavior in schools, more districts have turned to restorative practices as an alternative, with dramatic positive impacts on behavior and school culture.

However, moving too fast violates the very spirit of restorative work, and can end up harming the very students and teachers it aims to support.

Daniel Malec

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Ultimately, how restorative practices are rolled out determines whether a school will see transformation of school culture or another district initiative that didn’t deliver on its promises. Two impact evaluations of restorative practices in dozens of schools underscore this, identifying support for teachers and administration as a critical factor in improving student behavior and relationships between adults and students.

I applaud Gwinnett for listening to teachers and parents and taking the time to rethink its approach to building restorative school culture. Through our work in schools and school districts around the country, we have developed a list of school-based restorative principles to guide implementation, based on the guiding principles for restorative justice. GCPS could consider these as they rethink the rollout.

Participation is encouraged, but voluntary: To honor this principle, GCPS could organize a countywide intensive restorative practices training for school leaders and other interested school representatives. Following this training, district leaders could gauge desire and readiness among individual schools and school clusters for whole-school restorative practices implementation through an intentional and collaborative process, and then move forward initially with schools who are ready and willing.

Providing certain supports to one school and not another will invite criticisms of inequity. However, given the strong potential to do harm by pushing an initiative school communities don’t want or where enabling conditions are not yet present, GCPS would be justified in a gradual rollout.

Center the needs of those most affected: If a reason for restorative practices is to reverse trends of inequity and disproportionality in academic and disciplinary outcomes, then we must ask ourselves several questions. How can we involve families, students and others from the community that can speak to their experience of marginalization and struggle within our schools? How can their experiences inform the design of restorative approaches so that every child has what they need?

Promote collaboration and the sharing of power: Restorative practices require a shift away from power over toward a power with approach. Who has a seat as we decide when, where, why and how to roll out restorative practices? Do school communities get to decide for themselves if and how they will participate in all phases of the process?

Prioritize relationships over rules: Restorative culture is built on respectful relationships. As we value and honor voluntary participation, focus on the needs of those most affected and promote authentic involvement and collaboration. Instead of asking “Which rule was broken?,” ask “How has our relationship been affected, and what needs to happen to repair it?”

Commit to processes over outcomes: This is often a tough one for district leaders who face pressure to produce short-term outcomes such as reductions in suspensions and expulsions. Our advice is to take the long view, putting equitable and effective processes in place that can deliver impact over the long term. Over the first three to five years, a school community should measure progress by how closely they have followed the implementation plan developed as a school community and with the support of expert technical assistance, making needed adjustments as they go.

Building just and equitable systems is about charting a course that has never existed before, or at least not in the lifetime of most of the adults in the school. We have to dream big and start small, imagining a future that we cannot yet see. With the restorative principles in mind, we move forward little by little, one relationship at a time.