Transforming from a Punitive to Restorative Disciplinary System

By Michael Murphy, Dean of Discipline at Harold L. Richards High School, Oak Lawn, Illinois

While my title, “Dean of Discipline,” may sound a bit strict and traditional, our school has recently implemented a strategy that is proving to be transformational for teachers and students. Like other high schools around the country, as we have emerged from the pandemic, we have experienced a spike in behavior issues ranging from fighting and insubordination to classroom disruptions and tardiness.

In the past, our approach was highly punitive. Recognizing this wasn’t yielding the intended results, we decided to shift our approach.

Warm Demander
Rather than handing out detentions, we embraced the concept of a “Warm Demander” by working with teachers to not only learn the life skills of empathy and sympathy, but to also be firm and demanding at the same time.

We focused on three key areas as we restructured our discipline process:

  • Equity Lens
  • Student Voice
  • Student Agency

With the concept of the Warm Demander established and the three components above to guide us, we began to look for alternative forms of discipline that were functional and helpful for students who were struggling. One of the tools that we discovered and have implemented with great success is called Ripple Effects for Teens. It is a multitier system of support (MTSS) that addresses Tiers I, II, and III.

Ripple Rooms
When students are experiencing a problem—from a behavior issue to problems with anxiety or depression or even a recent trauma—we nominate them to go to one of our Ripple Rooms where they have access to more than 400 online Ripple Effects modules (or lessons) that cover myriad issues. While some kids may resist the process at first, most of them come to embrace it because the experience within the modules is private, giving them the freedom to meaningfully engage with the content and not worry about someone looking over their shoulder.

Before, if we had a student with 20 tardies, he or she would end up in detention and most likely continue to be a repeat offender. Now, students are given a choice: (1) they can work with me on three attendance-related modules with two days to finish them and I’ll wipe away their detentions, or (2) they can serve their detentions. We have found that when you give them agency and options, you get better results in the form of reduced disciplinary problems and increased engagement.

Data Confirms the Process
While the privacy tool protects what they search and how they interact with the content, we can see the number of minutes they’ve engaged with the content and how many modules they’ve completed.

Using the aggregate data, we get a big picture that shows trends and issues among the students. Armed with this data, we can prepare to address these issues. In short, the data informs our processes so we can strategize on how to help teachers who, in turn, help our students.

Closing the Circle
Using an approach that allows us to understand the why, what, and how enables our staff to take a more restorative approach to discipline, which circles back to our initial goal of identifying and addressing behavior issues before they become major disciplinary concerns. Shifting from a punitive to a more restorative approach has transformed how everyone within our school building interacts with each other. We’ve created a more positive school culture that is centered on learning rather than the drama that accompanies multiple disciplinary referrals.

Michael Murphy is a dean of discipline at Harold L. Richards High School in south suburban Chicago. Trained as a secondary English teacher, he grounds himself in his administrative roles through his roots in innovative instructional design and a staunch belief that every student’s individuality should be cultivated and celebrated. Teaching and coaching in the richly diverse environs of Community High School District 218 for the past 13 years, he understands that honest, equitable approaches to learning, discipline, and social–emotional wellness are paramount to outcomes of student successes in today’s educational arena. Michael is an integral cog in the MTSS wheel at Richards and is spearheading the effort to reimagine the idea of “discipline” and restorative practice in the high school setting.

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