From “Absent” to “Present”: Disciplinary Practices that Keep Students in School

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Zachary Malter, Policy Research Assistant

When I started teaching at a Title I high school in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, I was excited to make an impact on every one of my students, but little did I know just how often some of them would be absent. With students missing so much class time, how could I teach a sequenced curriculum, review a story over multiple days, or expose students to grammar concepts that require significant practice to master? One common reason students were absent: suspensions. I had roughly 25 students each year who would frequently miss class because they had been suspended by administrators for infractions such as disruptive behavior, tardiness, and failure to wear a uniform or identification card.

Given my experience dealing with recurring suspensions, I was overjoyed when, in July 2015, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvahlo pledged to eliminate out-of-school suspensions district wide. Miami-Dade is the nation’s fifth largest school district, making the superintendent’s decision one of national significance, with the potential to inspire other districts.

Research on Out-of-School Suspensions

Out-of-school suspensions not only reduce valuable instructional time but also contribute to a national trend of disproportionate punishment for students of color. This trend is particularly pronounced in the South and in Florida, the state with the highest suspension rates. Overall, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students. Additionally, when students are suspended, they become more likely to commit crimes that lead to arrest, especially if they did not have a previous history of behavior problems. Researchers have drawn a direct link between suspensions and the criminal justice system, a phenomenon known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Yet the impact is not limited to students who are suspended. A December 2014 study in the American Sociological Review shows that out-of-school suspensions can have negative academic consequences even for non-suspended students. Since out-of-school suspensions jeopardize learning for all students, schools should consider adopting alternative disciplinary strategies.

Restorative Justice as a Way Forward

AYPF has previously done work to highlight restorative justice practices including a blog series “From Discipline to Dialogue: Changing the Conversation About Classroom Discipline.” According to a guide designed by four education organizations, restorative practices are “processes that proactively build healthy relationships and a sense of community to prevent and address conflict and wrongdoing.”

In Oakland Unified School District, a three-tiered system of restorative justice is used to prevent disciplinary infractions, intervene when they happen, and help students re-enter the community after suspension or incarceration. During a regular advisory period, students participate in “community building circles” facilitated by the teacher and student co-facilitators (tier 1). Students sit in a circle, and they take part in community building “ice-breaker” activities, brainstorm a set of class values, and discuss their feelings about issues such as race, family, and teenage life. At the end of the period, students go around the circle, affirming and complimenting each other.

When a student commits an infraction, the district uses harm circles (tier 2). The misbehaving student meets in a circle with parents, teachers, and peers to discuss the infraction and its root causes, decide on consequences, and determine ways to prevent future harm and restore community trust. Sometimes the circle will be smaller, consisting of the student who committed the harm, the student who was harmed, and school support staff (some schools use a restorative justice coordinator).

If a student is returning to school after an extended absence due to incarceration or expulsion, a re-entry circle is held, where school staff and family members work with the student on a plan for successful re-entry to the community (tier 3).

In Oakland, after restorative justice was implemented as a pilot in 27 schools, suspensions dropped from 34% to 14%. The decline was particularly significant for African-American students. During that same time period, chronic absences decreased at restorative justice high schools. Reading scores improved by 128.2% at restorative justice high schools compared to just 11.4% at non-restorative justice ones. Over 90% of teachers felt that restorative justice helped them improve classroom behavior management. Due to the success of their pilot, Oakland is expanding restorative justice programs to all 86 schools in the district.

Restorative justice can give students, including the ones I taught in Miami, a more positive academic experience and the support they need to succeed in school (see AYPF’s webinar on impact in Fairfax County, VA). One day I would love to return to my former classroom to see fewer empty desks and more students present, engaged, and learning, to see restorative justice in action.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.