In a groundbreaking agreement that recently resolved a teachers’ strike in Portland, Oregon, the school district has committed to implementing restorative justice practices to address the issue of disproportionate discipline faced by students of color and those with special education needs.
Under the previous disciplinary policies, middle and high school students could face suspensions for severe incidents of physical harm or threats of violence. However, the new collective bargaining agreement aims to shift away from punitive measures and instead focuses on understanding students’ underlying needs and repairing harm within the school community.
The district acknowledges that non-white students, particularly Black, Native American, and other students of color, were suspended more frequently than their white peers. Additionally, students receiving special education services also faced disproportionate disciplinary actions. The district recognizes that this type of discipline does not align with the term’s true meaning: instruct, train, and educate.
To address these disparities, a team of staff psychologists, counselors, and social workers will be involved in developing support plans for students who exhibit continuous disruptive behavior. The plans will consider various factors such as race, trauma, sexual orientation, gender identity, and the principles of restorative justice. Mandatory suspensions will be replaced with alternatives that remove students from the classroom but not the school entirely.
The teachers’ association and the district are committed to adopting a discipline and student conduct approach that aligns with the district’s vision and incorporates research on racial equity, social justice, restorative justice, and trauma-informed practices. The goal is to minimize exclusionary discipline and maximize instructional time while fostering an inclusive, safe school environment.
It is important to note that the agreement still allows for the removal of students from school in cases of escalating violence or serious incidents. This ensures that the safety of the school community is prioritized while still emphasizing the importance of understanding and meeting students’ needs.
The implementation of restorative justice practices in Portland schools has garnered mixed reactions. Some critics argue that these policies are counterproductive and may contribute to a divisive climate in academic institutions. However, proponents believe that restorative justice offers a more holistic and practical approach to addressing disciplinary issues, particularly for students of color who have historically faced disproportionate punishment.
Moving forward, it will be crucial for Portland Schools’ leadership to provide transparency and accountability in implementing these practices. The concern that punishment could be canceled by simply checking specific “identity” boxes should be addressed to ensure fairness and equity in disciplinary processes.