Toolbox Tuesday: Restorative Practices Gone Wrong?

I did my first Toolbox 4.1 presentation two weeks ago, and it reminded me of how “old school” the Toolbox is.  The Toolbox is our firm’s all-day training program for dealing with students with disabilities who may be seriously disruptive or even violent. The Toolbox is based on existing law, and the “tools” it provides to educators to serve this kind of student well, while also maintaining a safe campus. When I present the Toolbox, I also emphasize that restorative practices can be used alongside the traditional tools we have in the Toolbox.  Many of you Loyal Daily Dawg Readers know that I have been a proponent of restorative practices.  That’s why the case of Doe v. Huntsville City School Board of Education (that’s the Alabama Huntsville) was a sad read on so many levels.

It’s a gruesome bullying case involving allegations of repeated physical assaults on an eight-year old boy who was on the autism spectrum and also had Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome.  I had to look that one up.  I don’t want to go into detail about the alleged assaults, but suffice it to say it resulted in the loss of one testicle and surgery on the other one.   Yikes.  I expect that many male readers just crossed their legs.  As usual in a lawsuit over bullying, the parents allege that their repeated complaints and warnings were ignored.

All of that will eventually get sorted out in the litigation, which will continue because the court refused to dismiss the case.  Here’s the part of the court’s decision that made me think about the proper and improper use of restorative practices:

Mary Doe [the mom] and her father met with [the principal] and [an assistant principal] before the spring semester began to discuss a plan for keeping the bullies completely away from John Doe. But when John Doe returned to school on January 4, 2017, the defendants did not separate John Doe from the bullies or transfer John Doe to different classes. Instead, [the A.P.] had John Doe meet in her office with [one of the alleged bullies].  She required them to shake hands to make them “become friends.” 

Well, that well intentioned effort did not work. In fact, the suit alleges that the alleged bully took advantage of this “friendship” by continuing to torment John Doe and warning him that “friends don’t tell on friends.”

Was this forced handshake an effort at a restorative approach?  I wonder.  If so, it demonstrates that restorative practices are like many other promising approaches—they have to be done at the right time, under the right circumstances, in the right way.  The court cited this meeting in the A.P.’s office, which came shortly after the parent asked for a separation of the students, as a basis for its refusal to dismiss the suit:

Thus, [the assistant principal] disregarded the danger the bullies posed for John Doe and acted in a way that “rendered John Doe….more vulnerable” to the bullying.”

This case is at a preliminary stage, where the court must accept as true all of the factual allegations. So we don’t know what happened—we only know what the suit alleges.  The case will proceed to discovery, and perhaps, trial, where the full context will be explored.  Nevertheless, this preliminary ruling is one we can learn from.  It’s Doe v. Huntsville City Schools Board of Education, decided by the federal court for the Northern District of Alabama on July 1, 2021. We found it on SpecialEd Connection at 79 IDELR 41.


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Tomorrow: Can the commissioner make you change your mascot?