The Hand of Professional School Counseling Meets the Glove of Restorative Practices: A Call to the Profession

Added April 20, 2018

While the field of school counseling has dutifully taken up the disposition of advocating for, and being more responsive to, students from traditionally undervalued groups, it has yet to call attention to perhaps the most pernicious and egregious systemic impediment to student success, that being the model of zero tolerance punitive discipline that dominates U.S. schools. Over the past 30 years, zero tolerance discipline measures have become widespread. Zero tolerance policies call for predetermined mandated sanctions, often exclusionary in nature, that are expected to be applied regardless of the gravity of behavior, mitigating circumstance or situational context. The extant literature strongly suggests that the paradigm of retributive justice as operationalized by zero tolerance and exclusionary discipline practices disproportionately targets children of color and students with disabilities. Nationally, 7.4% of all students are suspended each year, while students identified under the IDEA category of emotional disturbance experience suspension rates above 15% and upwards of 44%. Black and brown children, who represent 17.1% of all public-school students, account for 37.4% of total suspensions and are 55% more likely to receive a discipline referral than White males.

The literature on punitive discipline systems strongly suggests that such approaches inform inequitable suspension rates and the school-to-prison pipeline for black and brown students as well as students with emotional disabilities. Furthermore, the extant literature is clear that there is a correlation between school suspension rates and a decrease in academic achievement. It is time for school counselors to take up the work of shaping and influencing systems of discipline within schools.

In response to the failings of punitive discipline models, schools across the country are rapidly implementing restorative practices (RP). RP can perhaps best be described as a comprehensive Multitiered Systems of Support (MTSS) model incorporating an umbrella of tools that school staff, faculty and students can use to create a culture of care, to establish positive relationships that prevent conflict and misbehavior, and to repair relations that have been damaged by conflict and harm. One-on-one relational conversations, community building circles, problem solving circles, restorative healing circles, formal restorative community conferences, school climate surveys, and school bullying audits are just some of the processes and interventions that occur in schools within, between and amongst faculty, staff, parents and students. It must be underscored that RP is much more than an intervention, it is a cultural paradigm.

In this paper, the authors seek to introduce RP to the field of professional school counseling, to unpack the tenets of the model, review the emerging empirical support, and explicate the hand-in-glove fit between school counselor scope of practice and RP theory and praxis. Drawing from the American School Counseling Association’s (ASCA) National Model (ASCA, 2012), the ASCA’s Code of Ethics (2010), Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), and the school counseling literature, the authors will make the case for the profession of school counseling to take up RP, and to integrate the model into school counseling research, theory, and practice. Ultimately, the authors call on the field to focus greater attention on the theoretical alliance between professional school counseling and RP, to pursue empirical investigations of RP within school counseling practice, and to consider the harmonious overlap between the operationalization of RP in schools and the skill sets and competencies that have long been at the core of school counselor identity.

Lance C. Smith, PhD, University of Vermont in Burlington; Bernice R. Garnett, ScD, University of Vermont; Alyxandra Herbert, University of Vermont; Nicholas Grudev, University of Vermont; Jamilah Vogel, St. Albans City School, St. Albans, Vermont; Whitney Keefner, University of Vermont.