She was a first-year student mentoring local middle school students in an afterschool program in fall 2012. The kids were fun, challenging, full of life—and full of stories from school.
“I was hearing quite a bit about students who were being suspended for incidents that were really just misunderstandings, and for minor infractions like being late repeatedly or not wearing uniforms properly,” Sturtevant said. “I was struck by the fact that they were losing valuable learning time, and often the underlying issues weren’t being addressed. It was causing the students to withdraw from relationships at school.”
Sturtevant had stumbled upon a local manifestation of a national problem. Since the widespread adoption of “Zero Tolerance” discipline policies beginning in the 1980s, school districts across the country have seen sharp increases in suspension and expulsion rates.
The New London Public Schools district, where Sturtevant was working as a mentor, has policies similar to Zero Tolerance. In 2011-2012, the district ranked fifth in the state for the rate of middle school suspensions and expulsions and 13th at the high school level. More than half of the suspensions in recent years have been for school policy violations rather than violent or threatening behavior, which is also a statewide trend. Black and Latino students, as well as students with special needs, are suspended at the highest rates, and the impacts can be long-lasting.
“Kids who have experienced suspension and expulsion are more likely to drop out and more likely to end up in the criminal justice system,” said Associate Professor of Education Lauren Anderson, one of Sturtevant’s professors.
Rethinking school discipline
Sturtevant, an American studies major, began researching school discipline and the phenomenon known as the “school-to-prison pipeline” in several of her classes. At the same time, a group of concerned parents launched an effort to analyze and reform discipline practices in New London.
Some school districts around the country have already begun to move away from purely punitive discipline policies. Instead, they are implementing what is called “restorative justice”—a series of practices aimed at helping students take responsibility for their actions and make amends. “Instead of just applying punishments, you create opportunities for meaningful accountability and learning,” Anderson said. “You give students the chance to make right what has gone wrong and, at the same time, build community.” For example, a student who damages school property might be given the opportunity to help with repairs and to participate with others in a school beautification project, rather than serving a suspension.
Traditional punishment policies remove students from the classroom, often without addressing the issues that led to the behavior, Sturtevant said. If two students get into an argument, they might be sent to in-school suspension. But when that ends, the students are still at odds—and they’ve missed valuable learning time.
Restorative practices, she said, would instead bring the students together, with the support of teachers and parents, to come to a mutual understanding.
The concerns brought forth by the group of parents prompted the New London Board of Education to create a working group to explore the possibility of implementing restorative practices in New London schools.
It was a perfect opportunity for Sturtevant to get involved. Then a junior, she had just enrolled in an educational policy course taught by Associate Professor of Education Sandy Grande. The course was designed to give students the opportunity to do real-world, real-time policy work. Sturtevant and three classmates, Ellen Babbott ’17, Lizzie Del Rio ’17 and Leah Mendelson ’15, joined the working group, which also included Anderson; members of the Board of Education; New London students, parents and educators; and representatives from local organizations.
In class, Sturtevant and the other students learned about policy research, working with various stakeholders and writing briefs. In New London, they applied what they learned in real time.
“The school people had ideas, and the students in the class were able to do some of the legwork to study other school districts that had implemented restorative practices, examine the literature and research, and compare one model to another,” Grande said. “That really helped shape the group’s thinking on what was possible.”
Sturtevant was becoming more interested in public policy, so she joined Connecticut College’s new chapter of the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, a national organization that engages college students in public policy issues. She wrote a policy brief about reforming the disciplinary practices in New London and submitted it to the national organization.
Sturtevant’s brief, “Suspending Suspension: An Inclusive Disciplinary Framework to Support Student Learning,” laid out a five-pronged approach to addressing the factors leading to suspension and exclusion in New London. It was selected for inclusion in the Roosevelt Institute’s “10 Ideas for Education,” a publication that highlights the most promising ideas from students across the country. The Institute named Sturtevant’s brief Policy of the Year.
Writing the brief was a great academic exercise, Sturtevant said. But it was after the brief was submitted—when Sturtevant was working with the stakeholders—that the ideas really started to take shape.
“It’s one thing to sit at a computer and construct this ideal world where everything will fall into place like it should, but that is never going to actually happen. For a policy to serve the community, you’ve got to work with the people who will be most affected by the changes and build a consensus around an idea,” Sturtevant said.
Maegan Parrott, a core member of the working group and leader of New London Parent Advocates, said Sturtevant is adept at working with stakeholders.
“She was super approachable. She genuinely cared and [had] great enthusiasm,” Parrott said. “All of the Connecticut College students brought great energy, accomplished a lot and worked together as a team with the community.”
The working group put together a report in support of adopting restorative practices, and presented it to the Board of Education in June. The report was well-received, and plans are in place for a small pilot.
Sturtevant interned with the Roosevelt Institute over the summer, and she now serves as the head of the College’s chapter and as the policy change coordinator for the Upper Northeast Region of Roosevelt’s National Network. This semester, she is working on a senior honors thesis covering the history of the school-to-prison pipeline in New Orleans. After graduation, Sturtevant hopes to further explore public policy and education advocacy.
Anderson thinks it’s a good choice.
“The work that Margaret is involved in has the potential to contribute to more positive experiences for kids, chipping away at the relationship between schools and prisons,” Anderson said. “She is helping to keep kids learning.”