When your school district reports more than 15,000 disorderly conduct charges, what do you do?

For schools adopting a Zero-Tolerance policy, school attendance would be decimated, removing thousands of students from the classrooms, leaving them to roam the streets of Atlanta in their massive spare time.

While out-of-school suspensions may bring temporary relief to the classroom by removing disruptive students, this traditional disciplinary approach would only exacerbate a much bigger problem—school-age children with lots of time on their hands, making them more susceptible to all sorts of negative consequences.

These are the tragic consequences DeKalb County superintendent Dr. Stephen Green hopes to avoid, and why he’s choosing a different answer to the serious problem facing Atlanta’s schools.

In his passionate op-ed for Atlanta’s WXIA Channel 11, Dr. Green shares why he and the administrators at DeKalb County Schools have chosen to pursue a restorative justice disciplinary policy instead of the harsher route.

The article emphatically states that suspension as a “first consequence” doesn’t produce the intended results in student behavior because it teaches the wrong lesson. According to Dr. Green,

“A de facto suspension policy for discipline violations teaches students a lot about punishment … but not so much about problem- solving, self-control, or compassion for others.”

At its best, punitive action should have a redemptive quality in which the student can learn lessons that can change them for the better. It should be carried out with the intention that the student acquire something useful for their success, a moral lesson they can implement into their life and benefit from.

Hasty, reactionary suspensions teach students more about the mechanics of an institutional system rather than providing them with a lasting lesson about behaving better. Suspensions operate under the assumption that time away from school is a punishment, and provides opportunity for the student reflect upon their actions. The reality is just not that optimistic.

The Restorative Justice model is hinged on the belief that the life skills necessary to make things right after misbehavior often require interpersonal interactions between offending parties. But this is often complex.

Gaining the life skills necessary to navigate past poor behavioral decisions requires a positive school culture.

In the op-ed piece, Dr. Green shares that he’s not just interested in changing student behavior. He wants to change classroom culture;

“Increasingly, we see schools with restorative approaches more effective at shaping positive classroom cultures. They establish lasting changes in relationships and better connections among members of a school community. Victims speak, and wrongdoers face them … and face accountability. The entire climate of care improves.”

At Hero, we believe student behavior is largely influenced by the climate of the school. The opposite is also true. The way classroom discipline is handled will, in turn, affect school climate. By implementing restorative justice practices, Dr. Green and his team are navigating their way to a positive school culture that will “keep more of our young men where they belong – in the classroom. For many, that’s the most structured, safest place to help them gain the social skills they need to succeed in life.”

Staying in school gives students, especially young men, a better chance at success. In stark contrast, sending them out of the classroom for poor behavior increases their chances of failure.

“A kid out of school has a higher chance of ending up in the criminal justice system … not to mention the higher chance of being a victim of a violent crime. In DeKalb, we want appropriate penalties for inappropriate behavior … but the last thing we want is play any part in the destruction of a young adult life before it even begins.” – Dr. Green

DeKalb County schools have more than a plan to address negative behavior, they have a plan to promote good behavior.

To make positive changes to the school’s climate, and to help keep students in the classroom, Dr. Green and his team have created the Student Support and Intervention Division which will guide their efforts to implement a Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports program in 12 of their schools in the 2016–17 school year, and more to follow in 2017–18.

To properly address student behavior and make a lasting change, schools must have a plan to address bad behaviors and promote good behaviors. Without a plan for a school-wide effort, the isolated attempts of teachers and administrators, even with the best of intentions, to promote a positive culture will not be effective.

It’s exciting for all of us here at Hero to see real heroes like Dr. Stephen Green moving towards a more holistic approach to student behavior and school climate.

Read the full op-ed piece over on 11 alive.