This week’s Hartford Board of Education workshop centered on the alternatives to student suspensions – ways to keep the most at-risk students from missing even more school.  There’s a certain logic to this: Who needs to be in school more than the most challenged kids?

The student data are significant.  In 2009-2010, Hartford led the nation in the per capita  percentage of Latino students it suspended – and was in the top 10 for suspending African American students as well, Chief School Improvement Officer Jonathan Swan pointed out.  The 2013-14 school year brought more than 5,800 out-of-school suspensions, on which Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez focused – and which the District reduced by more than 1,000 the following year.

HPS Director of School Climate and Culture Mario Florez Tuesday explained the concept of restorative justice – “when you do harm, how do you restore that harm?” – and led a robust discussion of how the District is providing a menu of options to restore trust among both the students who perpetrate – and those who are the victims of – incidents, as well as the school community at large.

An illustration of conflict resolution Mr. Florez offered:  What if you were socked in the face and suffered a broken tooth in a fight?  What if, in a community conversation with the perpetrator, you not only arranged for a written apology to your family but participated in approving voluntary community service in a local dentist’s office?

As a concept, restorative justice returns offending students to the community, while putting them in positions to “pay it back” … so others can accept them back.

While suspensions are certainly not off the table as options for principals, disciplinary matters are teaching moments, Dr. Narvaez advised.  A new disciplinary paradigm, Mr. Florez added, would be to change attitudes away from “you gotta get out” to “how can we help you grow from the situation” – and move toward building peer, teacher, and community relationships.

The alternatives to suspension embody conflict resolution techniques – and switch the emphasis from conventional thinking (centered on the broken rules) to a focus on the people harmed.  Going further, the traditional notions are that behavior is a matter of the child’s will and that attention should focus on the behavior and its external motivations.  Using restorative thinking, behavior is instead regarded as a matter of the child’s skills – and is focused on problem solving and internal motivation, Mr. Florez explained.  Here is the digital presentation.

Like most improvements, the impact of this new paradigm on educators and students will depend upon the fidelity and speed of its implementation.  We are hopeful, and welcome further details on how this new paradigm is cultivated throughout the city.

Here is the video of this important discussion of alternatives to suspension.