Linda Belans, Ed.D.
Punishment is often reactive, driven by policy at best, and anger at worst. Often designed to control, if we practice punishment enough, it can diminish our own sense of empathy and sense of self. Think about how you feel after punishing a student.
Instead of learning to see the person in front of us, we rely on rules. Consequences require imagination, which is what Judge Avelina Jacob called on when she ordered violent juveniles to spend the year reading and writing selected books, instead of incarceration. These young people will read and write about the history of oppression, the causes and impact of prejudice and hatred, and paths for healing.
Judge Jacob chose this consequence rather than punishment -- sentencing them to do time -- empty, dangerous time that would deepen their bigotry and criminal impulses. Her intention is to tap into their suppressed empathy, rather than deepen their hatred of The Other. To do this, first, Judge Jacob had to access her own empathy. She understood that they lacked the education and experience to understand their own unexamined, internalized hatred. It's the first step in a long process for them that we hope includes ongoing conversations and relationship-building, and interventions with their schools and families.
Toward a solution
Does administering consequences mean that we don't hold students accountable? Absolutely not. It means that we see the person in front of us first so that we can create the consequence to match the need this student has -- to understand what's lacking in this person. To help students learn self-regulation so that they develop a moral conscience to guide them, rather than learn to rely on external constraints. We want to dismantle the school to prison to pipeline, not teach students how to crawl through it.
Does imagination take time and energy? Yes. But think of how many wasted hours students repeatedly spend in detention, isolation, or suspension when they could be reading books that speak to the underlying issue that sent them there in the first place, or engaging them in service to others? Imagine the ensuing conversations we can have, the bridges we can build. Otherwise, eventually, we begin to see these students as troubled, difficult, unmanageable, and we begin to crawl through the deficit pipeline dragging them along behind us.
Students need structure, rituals and routines, a clear understanding of what's expected of them, and perhaps most importantly, why it is expected. They need to be listened to and loved, especially at the most challenging times. They need to be invited into regular opportunities to give input into their school lives. They need many opportunities to lead, especially the students we identify as rebellious: they are often practicing the shadowy side of leadership, and can have the most influence among other students. Imagine the possibilities.