‘We all make poor decisions’ — Arlington Co. schools shift discipline away from punishment

The Arlington County, Virginia, public schools are reimagining discipline, in the hope that teaching valuable life lessons will benefit students more than punitive consequences.

On the first day of the 2021-2022 school year, Superintendent Francisco Duran, standing outside the newly opened Cardinal Elementary School, in North Arlington, said the school system is shifting the focus of discipline from punishment to making amends.

“Children are developing still, in their behaviors and how to interact, so we have to see: How do we help students to learn, and process, and problem-solve, and be critical thinkers about decisions they make?,” Duran said.

“We all make poor decisions at one point in our lives,” Duran said. “So, those areas where we can help our students learn from mistakes that they made, and choices they made — that, I believe, is going to help them long-term.”

Duran said some misbehavior does call for more than a teachable moment: “We have to understand where punishment and consequences are necessary, based on the infraction, or if it’s criminal,” Duran said. “If it’s physical assault, or something of that nature, obviously.”

But in most cases, on a daily basis, restorative justice is called for: “We can really help our students be better students and better citizens in the world, overall.”

Making amends provides a way forward, Duran said.

“Part of the process is really to understand each other, to understand what happened from each person’s point of view,” he said, adding that hearing from the aggrieved party can benefit parents, too. “As adults, we tend to think from our own lens and own perspective.”

Bottom line, Duran said, the ability to resolve issues is an important skill for everyone, not just still-developing children.

The process begins with “just listening, sitting down,” Duran said. “You don’t have to agree with everyone; you don’t have to feel that everyone is your friend, necessarily — but we all have to get along in this world.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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