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School of Education and School of Law Join Forces to Reform School Discipline


Dr. Pamela Fenning and Miranda Johnson move in two different worlds, but their passions intersect around reforming school discipline—moving from a punitive to a restorative model and addressing practices that disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities. They decided to join forces and bring the best of both the School of Education and the School of Law together to offer a certificate in School Discipline Reform—the first interdisciplinary certificate to be offered at Loyola.

“This grew out of joint training sessions we had done for school personnel,” said Johnson, Clinical Professor of Law and the Director of the Education Law and Policy Institute. “We really wanted a broader, sustained way to provide skills, tools, and knowledge to school personnel looking to change policies to better meet the needs of the students, and we have a unique focus on equity and anti-racism practices to further that goal.” Fenning, School Psychology Co-Program Chair and Professor, was quick to agree, saying, “We’re looking to achieve large scale changes in thinking and helping stop the school-to-prison pipeline, and needed more than occasional training sessions to help bring that about.”

Fenning, whose research focuses on alternatives to suspension and the inequalities in suspension and expulsion numbers along lines of race and ability, said, “There’s a growing body of data showing that suspensions don’t change behavior, but restorative practices do. Restorative and motivation circles, mediation, and time with a psychologist or social worker all support the student and get at the root causes of behavior in a way a suspension or expulsion never will.”

Affecting change in either a building or district is no easy task, a reality both Johnson and Fenning are well aware of. “Our students report that the connection they get with their classmates at Loyola is invaluable. They go out fired up to be advocates and then get some pushback and that’s frustrating. Faculty and fellow students empower and equip them with articles, expertise, and vocabulary to continue to be a change agent. It helps get them unstuck,” said Johnson. Fenning agreed, saying, “They implement practices and strategies they learn in real time while they’re in the program, and get support in meeting pushback, and that just continues when they’re done with the program and after. We had our first cohort in 2017 and we’re seeing implementation occur as our students go put this into practice and then stay with it over time.“

Implementation is a 3-5 year process, generally. “In fact, implementation is an outcome in and of itself,” said Fenning. “System reform is not an overnight, six-month process. You have to convince people to be in it for the long haul.” Johnson knows the importance of looking at how a district’s legal documents are worded as change is in process, stressing, “It’s important to take a look at the written policies at the building and district level. Are they reflective of a commitment to move away from punitive discipline? If they’re not, that’s one of the first things that has to change.”

The School Discipline Reform program has been sending out change agents to charter, Catholic, and public schools in both urban and suburban settings not just around metro Chicago and IL, but also CA, NY, CO, Oh, WI, WA, MO, and LA, and the momentum is growing. To learn more about what implementation looks like as one district worked to change their policies after going through Loyola’s School Discipline Reform program, visit  https://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/6-11-2019/Student-behavior-action-plan-approved-by-D97-/