Feb 19, 2021 Message to Members
It may be the easiest ‘hard’ thing that Principals and Vice-Principals have to do. Well, perhaps not exactly easy, but tidy. In fact, Student Codes of Conduct have incorporated precise descriptions of behaviour and consequence, as if each were an equation in balance: ‘X’ behaviour = ‘X’ days of suspension. The terms are clear, escalating, and visible. When a suspension is issued, although we ardently observe confidentiality, the community knows what has happened and is witness to a lesson learned. I know this because the community has often weighed in on the decision, sometimes condemning perceived lenience and other times pleading for clemency. Even though the equation looks balanced on paper, the measures of input and output are rarely stable or consistent. And as for the lessons learned, in my experience, days spent away from school have rarely re-shaped a child’s behaviour. Arguably, suspensions as a consequence place at an arm’s length the children we most need to hold close.
I write about this today because I met Jason Burnstick ten days ago.
For the last week, I have been sourcing and listening to his music. A quote I found on the Vancouver Folk Music Festival webpage captures my sentiments well: Jason’s “voice and guitar together will remind you that you have a soul.” Yet it is neither his melodies nor his lyrics that led me to think on traditional discipline practices; it is another of Jason’s callings that has provoked me, and he will share about this as our guest at Chapter Council on February 19.
Jason is a Restorative Justice Worker in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
My brief conversation with Jason and the anticipation of his presentation to Chapter Council surfaced many memories for me. Some came from my first days as a Vice-Principal, having to investigate student conduct and mete out discipline. One of my more painful memories is the morning I issued a suspension and delivered the boy home, greeted at the door by his grieving mother; her partner had died tragically the night before, possibly offering painful context for her son’s behaviour at school. Another memory that arose is more recent, and an early experience in my journey with Restorative Action. It is this story that I want to tell you.
I was a novice in the practice of Restorative Action then; I continue to learn now, and profess no expertise. I made many mistakes and missteps engaging with this practice, but I experienced moments of remarkable lucid clarity which revealed both the power and the humanity of Restorative Action. This was one of those moments.
We will call him Danny. He was in grade 11 and had been on an athletic field trip. His coach and chaperone was a teacher on staff, and Danny enjoyed a great, trusting relationship with her. Our coach Jane had worked with Danny each year of high school. She sang Danny’s praises, which made his poor judgement all the more difficult to reconcile.
It doesn’t really matter what Danny did – or was believed to have done. It is enough for the reader to understand that in the Student Code of Conduct, Danny’s violation would typically equal a five day suspension. It would also come with consequences for team play, but the season had concluded with this final trip. What happened within our team has happened for many schools, I am sure: end of season celebrations are not unique. After several hours of investigation and interviews with many student athletes, I had formed a clear picture of what took place, and Danny was in the thick of it. Only Danny insisted he was innocent of any misconduct.
I had issued suspensions to students for ‘being in the company’ of others who exercised poor judgement. I did not do that with Danny. Perhaps I was not following the script perfectly, but I was navigating for an opportunity to restore what had been harmed. So I stopped pressing Danny to concede, and had to explain to Jane why Danny ‘got off’ without consequences. To make the situation more layered, Danny was also Jane’s student. Although Jane was a professional every day, I know she was also human and pained by Danny’s betrayal of their trust. Danny, too, was human and feeling his own pain.
When I said suspensions were tidy, in part I meant they were immediate: time served, and back to the routine. It would be weeks before any closure to Danny’s situation was found. As the days passed, I saw Danny many times. I never stepped on the ground that we had covered so thoroughly during my investigations until one day right before we wrapped for Spring Break.
On this day, I was heading into the art room to speak with someone. Just outside the art room, Danny sat painting at a large work table. I said, “Hi Danny,” as I passed by him, and he replied hello. After a few minutes, I left the art room and saw Danny again. This time, I made eye contact, and he held my gaze. There was an unspoken weight in that moment. I simply said, “Aren’t you tired yet?” Danny broke.
What followed in the days before our holiday would be a textbook process for Restorative Action. I was witness to a genuine expression of remorse, a heartfelt apology and forgiveness, and I saw a meaningful restoration of faith, not just between a teacher and her student but also between a boy and his mother. No one can tell me that the burden Danny carried for several weeks was not a severe consequence in itself. Although the process was protracted and ‘untidy’, Jane would tell you the outcome was more powerful and meaningful than what traditional discipline might have reaped. Danny learned the importance of integrity, and I learned the importance of patience. Time taught us these things.
Although it is a worthy and important debate, I do not offer a conclusion that opposes traditional discipline nor argues a place for such practices. I merely offer a story which reveals the power we wield both to teach, and to help shape a young person’s character. And while the consequence may not be visible to anyone watching, the outcome will be enduring and marked in the culture it builds.