The End of Detention: The business of student discipline has moved a long way from the strap

Media Appearances, Education, Frontier Centre

Last school year, a chronically late student at St. Bonaventure's College would get a detention. Now, he gets a talking-to. Or, more accurately, a talking-with.

Disciplinary business has changed dramatically at the St. John's, N.L., independent K-12 school since September, when Greg O'Leary became principal and joined with other teachers in a new "relational culture" at the school that feeds into a new curricular approach – one that aims to make students more accountable for their actions and helps them think about how their behaviour affects themselves and others.

Lateness no longer warrants an automatic detention, Mr. O'Leary said. Nor are students given by-the-book punishment for pushing and shoving, relentless teasing, mouthing off or other bad behaviour.

"To have a student sit in a detention without understanding how their behaviour – lateness or otherwise – is affecting everyone else around them is not enough and, in our experience at St. Bonaventure's, does not change the negative behaviour," Mr. O'Leary said. "Once they become aware that their behaviour is adversely affecting the learning community … it is amazing to see the transformation in that student and, consequently, that behaviour."

Generations after educators replaced the strap with detention only to find an hour in supervised solitude doesn't turn a delinquent into an angel, this new approach has been gaining ground in schools from Toronto, to Edmonton, to Yarmouth, N.S., to Vancouver in the past decade or more, after first surfacing in New Zealand and spreading to the United States and the United Kingdom.

With roots in aboriginal healing circles and used in Canada's youth justice system, the concept frowns on the idea of punishment, but still commands consequences – they just have to be "proactive" ones.

Critics see this approach as well-intentioned, but symptomatic of an overly permissive school culture in which teachers are fired for giving zeros and helicopter parents insist their children can do no wrong, one in which they say discipline has gone soft and respect for authority has eroded so much that it can sometimes seem like the child is in charge.

"It takes a principle that's been around for a very long time and it's appropriate in certain limited circumstances, but I don't think it's worth completely removing punishment from the school system," said Michael Zwaagstra, a high school teacher, education analyst with western think tank the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and co-author of the 2010 book What's Wrong with Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them. Teachers and principals have been talking with students about how and why they behaved in the way they did for decades, he said. And while he can see a tussle between two Grade 1 students over a toy being solved with a good talk, sometimes older children do need to be removed from the classroom – especially when other students' safety is at risk.

"When you look at the system now, we've already seen significantly less emphasis on punishment already," he said. "I don't think we need to go further down the road of removing consequences."

Here's where the concept is often misunderstood, Mr. O'Leary and other supporters of the approach say.

"You're going to get people say 'Oh, have a chat instead of a detention, like that's really going to work,'" he said. "I think what my response to them would be 'No, there are consequences as well, that's a part of it as well.' The consequence is not the first thing we're going to jump to."

That consequence can indeed be a detention or suspension or even an expulsion if the situation warrants it. Calls are still made home to parents. And sometimes just having the conversation or circle – meeting face-to-face with the people hurt by your behaviour – is so difficult that it's consequence enough.

Lynn Zammit, a pioneer in bringing the concept into schools, including the Toronto District School Board and the Hamilton Catholic District School Board, says the toughness of this process becomes clear when it involves students who've done time in jail. When they're accused of a crime in school, and deal with it through this process, they see it as anything but easy, she says.

"Many had said to me 'If I had realized how hard that was, I would have opted for jail,' " said the Toronto-based director of the Centre for Transformative Practices. "Punishing is just about doing your time – you don't learn. [Restorative justice] is a very difficult process."

In some ways, it sounds even more punitive than detention or suspensions, which are known not to work, said Teresa Pierre, the president of Ontario Catholic parents' group Parents As First Educators.

"Detention probably worked in a day where there was more respect for authority in general. I think most people would experience the group discussion as embarrassing or shameful," she said. "It's the memory of living through [that discussion] – you think about it in the next situation comes up and it stops you from re-offending."

While she'd like to see more study of it, she thinks it sounds like a good move, as long as there is still a solid sense of authority to which the students must answer, she said.

At St. Bonaventure's, at least, it appears to be working: Behaviour incidents are down by about 50%60%, Mr. O'Leary said. Lates have decreased by two-thirds. The "restorative team" at the Jesuit school, which includes Mr. O'Leary and English teacher David Martino, tries to stop trouble before it starts. For example, they intervene when animosity seems to be rising between two students, and hold a meeting to talk it out. In some cases, those students become friends, Mr. O'Leary said: "They finally [get] a chance to understand one another."

Dorothy Vaandering, an assistant professor of education at Memorial University, says some schools have struggled to implement it, or simply used it as a strategy to get their detention numbers down, abandoning it when the problem appears to be solved.

"Initially when parents hear about it and even educators, they say 'No way,'" said Ms. Vaandering, who researches restorative practices in schools and is hosting a national conference on the subject at the university in August.

"Parents don't know another way, just what they've experienced themselves. Educators don't always know another way. They get so busy in the day they default to how they were taught or how they were parented."

She's convinced people will come around when they start to see results. But that requires patience and sticking with it.

Restorative practices don't offer a quick fix, and some time-crunched teachers have been dismissive of the idea, saying they don't have time to sit in circles and drill down with students on why they really can't get to school on time or why they keep picking on other students.

Detention is an express route, where the same students return time and again.

Ms. Vaandering wants to see the concept fit into the larger identity of a school, rather than it just be used to deal with behaviour problems. That's what's happening at St. Bonaventure's, she said.

"It's putting community back into the institution," said Brenda Morrison, director of the Centre for Restorative Justice at Simon Fraser University and an assistant professor in its criminology department.

"What students learn in our typical institutional framework is when things get tough in our classrooms … my teacher doesn't even take care of it, I get sent down the hall somewhere else,'" she said.

"All those kids in the class are learning that they don't take care of problems, other people take care of problems."