Punishment is often reactive and driven by policy at best, and anger at worst. Punishment is more often designed to control, and it lacks imagination. If we practice it enough, it can diminish our own sense of empathy and sense of self. Think about how you feel after punishing a student.
We make policies and rules to follow instead of learning to see the person in front of us. Behavioral rules and policies can make the adults in charge lazy. Consequences require imagination. Imagination is what Judge Avelina Jacob called on when she ordered students to spend the year reading and writing selected books, instead of incarceration. These young perpetrators of violence and vandalism will read books about the history of oppression, the causes and impact of prejudice and hatred, and paths for healing. And they will write about it.
Judge Jacob chose this consequence rather than punishment -- sentencing them to doing time. Empty, dangerous time that would deepen their bigotry and deadly impulses. She is trying to tap into their suppressed empathy, rather than deepen their hatred of The Other. First, Judge Jacob had to access her own empathy. She understood that these juveniles 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.
Perhaps Judge Jacob interrupted another school massacre.
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. 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. 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.