​​​​​​​Is Discipline Reform Really Helping Decrease School Violence? 

A lack of concrete information about student misconduct—and how to address it—may be hindering efforts to make campuses safer.

Thomas Mukoya / Reuters

The allegations sound like a parent’s nightmare. Roughly two dozen children at New York City schools were hit, kicked, and bullied by fellow students while administrators stood by, according to a recent class-action lawsuit.

“The data we have seen shows a clear and undeniable escalation of violence in New York City schools,” said Jim Walden, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the suit, which is being backed by the charter-school advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools. The suit claims that the New York City Education Department isn’t doing enough to stop the violence.

The complaint details a litany of violent behavior. In one case, a 9-year-old boy in an East Harlem school was repeatedly bullied even when the teacher was in the classroom. The bully, according to the lawsuit, “repeatedly kicked him on his body, and verbally harassed him.” The boy’s mother tried to get the principal to intervene but was allegedly met with indifference.

The suit is among the signs of rising concern about violence in schools, partly driven by mass shootings like the one in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. In response to such fears, school administrators are instituting a wide range of tactics to boost safety, including by installing metal detectors and hiring security guards. Schools are also turning to social-reform programs such as those that embrace the restorative-justice model, an approach that emphasizes bringing together the perpetrators and victims of misconduct through meetings and discussions.

But a lack of hard data and conflicting views on safety measures make it difficult to assess whether school violence is in fact increasing—and whether those measures are actually effective. Some observers worry that the absence of concrete information and confusion over the amount of violence in schools are hindering efforts to reduce violence and bullying.

Despite the concerns expressed by parents like those in the lawsuit, many experts say that the incidence of school violence is dropping. New York City school officials contend that violence on campus is on the decline, a trend that experts say is mirrored across the country.

At the local level, statistics on school violence can vary depending on the source. Walden pointed to state statistics showing that the number of violent episodes in New York City schools rose 23 percent from the 2013-14 school year to the one that ended in June 2015. But the New York City school administration uses police data showing that crime in the city’s schools declined 29 percent from the 2011–12 school year to the 2014–15 year. Some observers have said that the state data does not make a distinction between minor disciplinary problems in schools and more serious acts of violence and bullying. Critics also emphasize that the state data isn’t verified.

Nationally, though, most experts say it’s clear that school violence is on the decline even if that’s not the public perception. “In general, schools are far safer now than they were 20 years ago,” said Dewey Cornell, a clinical psychologist and education professor at the University of Virginia. “Every major study in recent years has shown that schools are much safer than the communities around them. Students are much more likely to be injured in restaurants than on school grounds.”

Stephen Brock, a professor at California State University, Sacramento, who has studied school violence, said that the pervasive media coverage of school shootings and other violence has led to misperceptions about danger in schools. “So much of this kind of news coverage has led many people to conclude that schools are horribly flawed, violent institutions,” Brock said. “But if you take a step back, what you will find is that the overall rate of violence in schools is declining.”

The 2015 Indicators of School Crime and Safety Report, an annual study produced by the National Center for Education Statistics released in May of this year, found that between 1992 and 2014, the number of students who were victims of crimes at school declined 82 percent, from 181 incidents per 1,000 students in 1992 to 33 incidents per 1,000 students in 2014.

Still, critics of such studies say that many are flawed because school violence is often underreported. An audit last year by the New York’s Office of the State Comptroller reviewed incidents of violence in 10 public schools in New York City and found that nearly one-third of all incidents went unreported. According to the review, school officials failed to include over 400 reportable incidents on forms that are used to tally incidents of violence, and many of the incidents that were reported were not correctly categorized.

Walden said that many school principals don’t report school violence in order to make their schools seem safer. Anne Gregory, a professor at Rutgers University who studies school discipline, also cited anecdotal evidence suggesting administrators underreport such incidents, but added that there have been no scientific studies showing such underreporting.

While most experts seem to agree that violence in schools is decreasing, less serious offenses, such as the bullying mentioned in the lawsuit, may be on the rise. Sixteen percent of students nationwide reported student bullying that occurred at least once a week at school, and 5 percent reported student verbal abuse toward teachers at least once a week, according to the Indicators of School Crime and Safety Report.

Just as school-violence rates are contentious, though, data on bullying trends are also subject to dispute. Experts caution that measuring the incidence of bullying can be difficult because the definition is sometimes unclear. As awareness of bullying has grown, more students are reporting incidents, Cornell said. That’s important, he added, particularly because “when we intervene with bullying, we have the potential to prevent more serious acts of violence.”

Then there’s the question of whether new efforts to improve school climate are actually effective. Even if violence is indeed declining, schools still aren’t entirely safe: About 65 percent of public schools recorded at least one violent incident in the 2013–14 academic year. Among the approaches gaining popularity is restorative justice, which encourages offenders to take responsibility for their actions and aims to help them avoid future offenses through mediation. How schools actually use restorative justice varies but a key component involves students and teachers sitting in a “restorative circle,” in which the student who has caused harm hears the views of peers.

While many school districts are embracing restorative justice, there’s little hard data to show the approach is effective in reducing violence. Anecdotal evidence suggests that restorative justice can reduce violence in schools through exercises like group discussions that build empathy among students, Gregory said, but she and other education researchers are quick to say that there have been few carefully designed studies to back up these claims. By teaching problem-solving strategies as part of a restorative-justice program, schools can “head off fights that are brewing and other acts of violence,” she added.

In other countries that have established restorative-justice programs “there is a lot of evidence to show that when restorative-justice programs are implemented, suspension rates go down,” Gregory said. She pointed to New Zealand as an example. In 1989, the country redesigned its  juvenile-justice system based on restorative-justice principles and has since“seen plummeting juvenile violence as well as arrest and incarceration rates,” Gregory added.

Chicago Public Schools have, unsurprisingly, seen a drop in suspensions since implementing restorative-justice practices; such tactics are often explicitly adopted as an alternative form of discipline. One report found that in the 2013–14 school year, 16 percent of high-school students received an out-of-school suspension, down from 23 percent in 2008–09. “There’s been enormous progress in reducing disciplinary problems in Chicago schools since we started practicing restorative justice,” said Nancy J. Michaels, the associate director of the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation in Chicago.

In Los Angeles, restorative-justice programs have been hailed as a success for shrinking suspension rates, too. A recent report found that restorative-justice programs and other disciplinary initiatives have led to a 92 percent decrease in the number of days lost to suspensions. The city plans to establish restorative-justice programs in all schools by 2020.

In classrooms, however, not everyone is on board with the restorative-justice approach. In both Chicago and Los Angeles, some teachers have criticized the method  for reducing their ability to maintain discipline. Some teachers have also complained that there hasn’t been enough training and resources  available to correctly implement the new approach.

Schools, according to Gregory, are most effective in implementing restorative-justice practices when teachers are given enough instruction on how to use the approach. “There is a lot of hard work to be done to make sure restorative justice works,” she said. “You can’t just declare it’s the school policy.”

As part of his vow to avoid overly punitive discipline, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is funding pilot programs in restorative justice. Brady Smith, the principal of the James Baldwin School in Manhattan, said that restorative-justice practices have contributed to a decrease in disciplinary actions against students. “We hardly have any suspensions,” Smith said. He pointed to restorative-justice circles as among the most powerful tools. “Children in our society are so rarely given a chance to speak up,” Brady said.

At Ebbets Field Middle School in Brooklyn, which adopted restorative justice this past school year thanks to a grant from the Brooklyn Community Foundation, suspensions have dropped by more than 30 percent compared with the year before, according to Michelle Patterson Murray, an assistant principal at the school.* In touting the approach’s effectiveness, she cited a recent incident in which a student stole an item. “Rather than call her parents or apply for a suspension, we sat in a circle and talked about how her action damaged the trust of the community,” Patterson said.

Still, as New York and other cities jump onto the restorative-justice bandwagon, education researchers say carefully-designed studies need to be done to prove the approach’s effectiveness. Catherine Bradshaw, an education professor at the University of Virginia, is conducting a randomized study on the effects of restorative-justice practices on school discipline. The three-year study, funded by a $13 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, is looking at 40 schools in Maryland, 10 of which are using restorative justice. “There’s a lot of energy and buzz around” the practice, Bradshaw said. But, she added, “we can’t find effective ways to reduce violence without taking a systematic, scientific approach to understanding and evaluating the tools that we are using.”

Brock, of Cal State, said that it’s critical to educate the public and administrators on the level and type of violence occurring in schools. “Fear is not the answer. Facts are the answer,” he said. “Otherwise we are finding the wrong answers to the wrong problems.”  Instilling a psychological sense of security in schools can be as important in ensuring school safety as physical measures like metal detectors, he continued. “If you create a place where kids feel that adults care about them as a person and want to connect with them, it increases the probability that if there is going to be act of violence, then adults will know about it and act to stop it.”

While many schools are trying to change the way they discipline students, others are spending millions on physical protection like security cameras and armed guards. But Brock warned that physical protection has its limits. He said that data from studies is inconclusive on whether such measures are effective in preventing violence.

“There is only so much you can do before a school becomes like a prison,” Brock said. “You have to make sure you aren’t inadvertently creating a space that is not conducive to learning.”

* This article has been updated to clarify the funding source of the restorative-justice program at Ebbets Field Middle School.