Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Horizontal Violence, School Discipline, and Restorative Justice

I recently saw the movie, The Class, a French fictional film (in documentary style) that depicts the classroom of a white male teacher in the city of Paris. While there is not a singular plot line, one student that the movie follows is Souleymane. After several incidents at school, for which he recieves "punishment," he is eventually expelled. The teachers knew that the approach wasn't working and didn't seem to believe that expulsion would solve the problem either. But they had given up--they had to do something, it was the principle of the matter, and the protocol was expulsion.

Why do we expect punishment to work? Those students who are afraid of being reprimanded or punished typically do not act out in the first place. Those that are not afraid of punishment will continue to act out. I hate to compare schools to prisons, but sometimes they aren't that different. So I'll refer to research that shows that harsher punishments for juvenile offenders (trying minors as adults) do not deter youth from reoffending, in fact, it does the opposite:
A 1996 Florida study authored by Northeastern University researcher Donna Bishop also found that juveniles transferred to the criminal system were not less likely to reoffend, but in fact often had higher rates of recidivism. This research compared the recidivism rates of 2,738 juvenile offenders transferred to criminal court in Florida with a matched sample of nontransferred juveniles. Bishop and her colleagues found that although juveniles tried as adults were more likely to be incarcerated, and incarcerated for longer than those who remained in the juvenile system, they also had a higher recidivism rate. Within two years, they were more likely to reoffend, to reoffend earlier, to commit more subsequent offenses, and to commit more serious subsequent offenses than juveniles retained in the juvenile system. The authors concluded that:

"The findings suggest that transfer made little difference in deterring youths from reoffending. Adult processing of youths in criminal court actually increases recidivism rather than [having] any incapacitative effects on crime control and community protection."

Following the same offenders six years after their initial study, the researchers again found higher recidivism rates for most juveniles transferred to criminal court. The exceptions were property felons, who were somewhat less likely to reoffend than those tried in juvenile court, although those who did reoffend did so sooner and more often that those tried in juvenile court.
At one point in the film, a student describes teacher discipline as "revenge." Isn't this sometimes the case? I'm reminded of a scene in Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The local Christmas tree vendor has a yearly Christmas Eve ritual in which he throws left over Christmas trees at children. If the children withstand the throw, they get to keep the tree. If they fall, no tree. As he's about to throw the largest tree at two small children, the man ponders "Why don't I just give'em the tree?" He eventually concludes that he isn't "big enough" to do something of that nature: "'Oh, what the hell! Them two kids is gotta live in this world! They got to get used to it. They got to learn to give and take punishment. And by Jesus, it ain't give but take, take, take all the time in this God-damned world.' As he threw the tree with all his strength, his heart wailed out, "It's a God-damned, rotton, lousy world!"

Why are students acting out? One possibility might be to consider the notion of horizontal violence or self-depriciation. (This could also be a reason for the terrible treatment of students by some teachers as well...) In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire says:
Submerged in reality, the oppressed cannot perceive clearly the “order” which serves the interests of the oppressors whose image they have internalized. Chafing under the restrictions of this order, they often manifest a type of horizontal violence, striking out at their own comrades for the pettiest reasons.

The colonized man will first manifest this aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones against his own people. This is the period when the niggers beat each other up, and the police and magistrates do not know which way to turn when faced with the astonishing waves of crime in North Africa. ... While the settler or the policeman has the right the livelong day to strike the native, to insult him and to make him crawl to them, you will see the native reaching for his knife at the slightest hostile or aggressive glance cast on him by another native; for the last resort of the native is to defend his personality vis-a-vis his brother.

It is possible that in this behavior they are once more manifesting their duality. Because the oppressor exists within their oppressed comrades, when they attack those comrades they are indirectly attacking the oppressor as well.

Self-depreciation is another characteristic of the oppressed, which derives from their internalization of the opinion the oppressors hold of them. So often do they hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing and are incapable of learning anything — that they are sick, lazy, and unproductive — that in the end they become convinced of their own unfitness.
In the report, "Teachers Talk: School Culture, Safety and Human Rights," the authors discuss the pitfalls of reactionary and punitive discipline and offer recommendations.
"Teachers Talk" proposes a human rights framework as an approach to reforming discipline and improving school climate. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, an important human rights treaty that is widely adopted throughout the world, recognizes discipline as part of an educational process to develop the social skills of students, encourage learning, increase school attendance, and protect the dignity and safety of the child.

In surveys and focus groups, New York City teachers call for policies and practices that protect these basic human rights standards and reflect a holistic approach to improving safety. Teachers call for smaller classes, more engaging curriculum, more access to guidance counselors and social workers, classroom management and conflict resolution training, mediation programs and restorative practices.

The report highlights positive models being used in three New York City public schools - Eastside Community High School in Manhattan, Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx and the James Baldwin School in Manhattan. At Eastside Community High School, for example, the 100% RESPECT Campaign involves students and staff in a process to discuss and define what respect means in their community. Six months after the campaign was implemented in the middle school grades, suspensions dropped by 45%.
More Resources: