Muhammad: Restorative practices for discipline are key in schools


Dr. Malik Muhammad is an educational partner for American Civil Liberties Union Delaware.

Student success should come from celebrating achievement, not punishing children’s behavior. Restorative practices in schools have emerged as a transformative approach to building strong schools and communities, and keeping kids out of the juvenile justice system. In Delaware, the continued shift away from punitive discipline practices toward a more holistic, community-based model shows promising results in fostering an inclusive school climate. These changes are reducing disparities, encouraging problem solving and promoting opportunities for healing — particularly among students of color who are disproportionately affected by harsh disciplinary actions.

Restorative practices center on building and maintaining healthy relationships, fostering empathy and repairing harm. Relying on punitive measures does little to address the underlying causes of student behavior. Restorative practices encourage accountability, reconciliation and opportunities for students and the adults who support them to take responsibility for their behavior and learn new, better behavioral patterns. When conflicts are addressed proactively and collaboratively, students are more likely to feel supported, respected and motivated to engage constructively with their peers and teachers. By creating a supportive and inclusive environment that values all voices and experiences, restorative practices empower students to work toward positive change for themselves and their larger community within and beyond school walls.

Restorative practices offer a more effective approach to improving student behavior and serve as a critical tool in addressing racial justice issues in our state’s education system. For students of color, particularly those with special needs, restorative practices offer a much-needed alternative to the traditional punitive system that isolates, punishes and pushes them out of classrooms. Research has and continues to show that implicit biases against Black and Brown students cause them to experience harsher discipline than their White peers for similar behaviors. Black students — especially boys — are two to three times more likely to receive suspensions. This disproportionate impact can have far-reaching consequences leading to increased academic disengagement. The overrepresentation of students of color in the “school-to-prison pipeline” — a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and adult legal systems — perpetuates historical cycles of trauma and exclusion.

Delaware schools across the state have begun to abandon punitive measures in favor of restorative practices. Yet, opponents continue to resist progress, clinging to outdated ideologies entrenched in biases that prioritize punishment over healing and accountability. Ultimately, these attacks underscore the need for ongoing education, dialogue and advocacy between schools, families, community advocates and lawmakers. By challenging misconceptions, providing education and training, and advocating for restorative approaches, we can create more equitable learning environments where all students can thrive.

As our state battles inequity in education, violations of students’ rights, challenges to funding public schools and systemic racism, the significance and profound impact of restorative practices cannot be understated. Prioritizing and effectively implementing restorative practices is a crucial step toward ensuring schools are truly places where students and staff feel included, respected and supported. Our restorative journey in Delaware is far from over. Now’s the time to commit to creating a more just, inclusive and equitable educational experience for generations to come.

Visit aclu-de.org/csnc to learn more about American Civil Liberties Union Delaware’s model for creating an inclusive school climate with proven success in reducing suspension rates and improving students’ sense of belonging, personal academic abilities and perceptions of teachers and school staff as allies and resources.

Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at civiltalk@iniusa.org.

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