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School Choice Can Be Your Hall Pass Out Of Increasingly Violent Classrooms

Schools don’t just tolerate bad behavior — they’re fostering more of it with discipline models like ‘restorative justice.’

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A teacher on the outskirts of Cincinnati is recovering from brain surgery after a student violently attacked her earlier this month. The 60-year-old teacher was harmed so severely by a teenager that doctors had to remove part of her skull to help manage swelling in her brain.

Last spring, a Tennessee teenager pepper-sprayed a teacher for confiscating her phone. Also last year, a Texas administrator was beaten to the ground by a group of students.  

As school choice expands across the country, millions more parents have the chance to send their children to schools that best meet their needs. They are eager to flee schools that foster poor behavior. Parents know their children best, and they know a child’s best educational fit is based on more than only test scores and graduation rates.

Academic performance is critically important, but so too are intangible factors that shape a child’s educational experience. It is no surprise that school culture is one of the top factors parents consider in choosing where to send their kids to school.

The most recent Parent Involvement in Education survey, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2019, found that 71 percent of parents who considered sending their children to a school other than their government-assigned one rated “safety, including school discipline” as “very important.” Only 53 percent ranked “academic performance of students (e.g. test scores, dropout rates)” the same way.

This concern for discipline and safety is not surprising. No parents want to send their children somewhere unsafe. Sadly, many schools tolerate bad behavior and thus foster more of it, creating an environment where teachers can hardly teach and students can hardly learn.  

School violence is on the rise for several reasons, two of which can be tied directly to policies pushed by teachers unions and fringe civil rights groups and accepted as gospel by many in the public education establishment. The first is prolonged school closures resulting in a steep decline in good behavior by students.

The Student Pulse Panel, a study conducted by the Institute of Education Sciences, found that 38 percent of public schools saw an increase in physical altercations between students following the pandemic. (Less than 10 percent saw a decrease.) More than half of public schools saw an increase in threats of physical altercations between students. The damage is not just physical. More than half of public schools reported an increase in “student acts of disrespect [towards staff] other than verbal abuse.”

The study says, “More than 8 in 10 public schools have seen stunted behavioral and socioemotional development in their students because of the COVID-19 pandemic.” But Covid did not cause student behavior to circle the drain. Prolonged school closures, driven by teachers unions and their political allies, meant that students forgot how to behave at school.

The second culprit is “restorative justice,” a so-called “disciplinary” model embraced by teachers unions and administered by school systems across the country. This harmful practice is by no means restricted to blue states, nor is it a post-Covid phenomenon. Leading into the pandemic, 21 states and D.C. had laws on the books supporting the use of restorative justice in schools. Among those states are Texas, Florida, and Utah, far from the usual suspects when it comes to educational malpractice.

Under restorative justice, suspending and expelling a student is to be avoided at all costs. Real consequences are replaced by “healing circles.” School resource officers are sidelined, and teachers lose control of their classrooms.

Every single one of the violent incidents noted above happened in a school or school district that has embraced restorative justice policies. The teacher near Cincinnati taught at a school that advised a “verbal warning using restorative practices and affective language” when students are disruptive. The school district in Tennessee is the home of a “restorative practice program,” and the Texas school had moved to adopt more restorative practices in its Campus Improvement Plan.

Education freedom can help solve this problem. Several studies have demonstrated that school choice leads to safer schools.

But a school culture need not be violent to be rotten. There is a reason “Mean Girls” resonates across generations. Bullying is real, it can be severe, and parents deserve the right to decide if and when their child needs a fresh start at a new school. No children should have to risk their mental health and emotional development because they can’t choose another school and get a fresh start.

A good school, the kind of school parents seek out for their kids when they have school choice, is one that not only excels academically but maintains high standards of behavior. Such schools excel academically in no small part because they maintain high standards of behavior. Test scores are only one piece of the education freedom puzzle. Parents see the full picture, and education leaders would do well to follow suit.


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