The Dean of Students usually has a negative depiction, they are usually cast as the mean, unforgiving disciplinarian on campus. When I signed my contract to be the Dean of Students at Equipo Academy in Las Vegas, Nevada,I told my Principal that I wanted a different role. In my opinion, the Dean of Students should be the administrator on campus that advocates and serves the students. “Students” is in the title, and I took that as a personal mission to make sure that I was a welcoming face to the students, a well respected but approachable face.
Another major goal I had when becoming Dean of Students was not approaching discipline the way other schools did in low-income communities of color. The first goal was reducing expulsions and not suspending students for minor offenses like not observing the dress code, not being prepared for class, or apathy to do work. A piece of advice that I took from a very productive professional development, one that led to me wanting to be the Dean of Students, was changing the question of “what’s wrong with that kid?” to “what happened to that kid?” when they make a mistake. Every person, especially young minds, has a battle we know nothing about. As educators, it’s in our role to help them navigate through that battle
Therefore, I made the commitment to invest more time in my role and approach discipline through a restorative justice method. We would get to the root of the problem, not just give unnecessary consequences. Everything we did to help students would be strategic so that students were learning from their mistakes rather than being defined by them. (Again, singular/plural agreement)
My approach was first challenged when two students decided to fall into the peer pressure of proving who was the toughest tenth grader on our campus. When the animosity between the two students grew thick and the peer pressure grew strong the two young ladies decided to engage in a physical altercation in the lunchroom. Because the event was so public, the leadership team, along with our student council coordinator, met to develop a strategic plan. We spent ten hours that Saturday brainstorming and coming up with a strategic plan that would invest the young ladies in their future, invest their families in their daughters’ education,and invest all the adults in the building to further support them so that something like this would never happen again. That’s when we created the Learning Work Project.
The Learning Work Project would have three major components, a challenging and lengthy process that would truly help students reflect on their choices and help them restore the damage they did to our campus. The first part would be to reflect and do research that would help them understand that their choices have consequences. They start by writing a reflective essay where they explain the choices they made, why they think students engage in physical fights, and what students should do differently. The advice piece gets them ready to talk to peers about their choices and advise them to do differently. After they reflect, they write apology letters to their family, their peers, their teachers, and the community. The goal is for them to demonstrate remorse to everyone that is working with them and helping them be successful. To show the students that they are disappointing the people around them who are working hard to keep them from becoming another statistic in our society. After they finish apologizing for their mistake they travel to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas our local college and interview students on what would happen if that mistake was made in college. This gives students the opportunity to realize that the actions they take now are building habits for their future. Our goal is to get them to college, but if they waste that opportunity repeating a habit from high school, then we did not do our job to best serve our students. After putting them on a college campus, a space that will inspire them to work hard they interview police officers at the university asking them what happens to civilians in our society who make this mistake. When students fight in high school or make other mistakes they are usually slapped on the wrist and given a five day vacation from school since they are minors. In the real world, this fight could mean an arrest, a fine, and something on your permanent record. These are things we need our students to think about which is why we incorporated the interview with police officers. The last part of the reflection and research process is that students write a letter to their future college explaining what they learned from this process. We don’t send it out but we prepare them for the dreaded questions college admissions are going to ask. For the students who say, I am not going to college, we have them write it to their future employer for their dream job.
The reflection and research process usually takes students two or three days which is much less time than the local district’s five, ten, and fifteen day suspension plan. The second part of the restorative justice process is social probation. Most of the major mistakes students make on school campuses is because of peer pressure and trying to prove something. So the strategy here was to strip them of their friends and have them focus solely on their academics. Because they were out for a few days they spend their first day shadowing their advisor. This gives them time to bond with the person that is advocating for them the most on our campus and also time to work on the assignments they missed while they were out. That day is a catch up day but also a day where they have zero interactions with other students, only the adults in the building that are there to help them reach their goals. The social probation process includes four more days where they slowly earn back time with their peers. They earn back their classes the next day but are not allowed to talk to anyone. On the following day they earn back the privilege of talking to peers only in classes, then they earn back their transitions, the free time they have between classes that students enjoy and use to catch up with their friends. Lastly they earn back having lunch with their friends. The goal here is to have students refocus and concentrate on getting their academics back on track with little to no distractions.
The third part of the Learning Work Project includes the students creating a Powerpoint presentation that they present to a group of students. This is organized like a random information session would be on a college campus. The students advertise their presentation and recruit thirty students who sit in as they explain the repercussions of getting into a fight on campus, or whatever mistake they made. This gives them the chance to fix their reputation on our campus. After getting into a physical altercation in tenth grade the young ladies quickly learned that they were being labeled negatively and had even frightened the younger students. This was their chance to say, “I made a mistake but it will not define me or my future.” Additionally, they must invite two adults on campus that they want to help keep them accountable to never making this same mistake again. After the presentation, the audience is allowed to ask the students questions on their research, their experiences at UNLV, and their goals for the future.
The restorative justice process is lengthy and far from perfect but we believe it beats giving the students a vacation with no focus, no goals, and nothing to be learned. If students get into a fight at school and the only consequence is keeping them out of school for a week we are not getting to the root fo the problem. We are not addressing the anger behind the student, the peer pressure associated, or the bullying that might be taking place. Our method will continue to evolve as our school continues to do so but our strategy is to be ready when the mistakes happen because they will, but we will address them from a place of wanting to help students realize their mistake and give them the tools and support to never make that mistake again.
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