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Restoring justice: Preservice teachers' moral judgments about school discipline

Abstract

Research on school discipline and moral reasoning have typically been construed in separate spheres. The former has examined the outcomes of specific practices—from punitive to restorative—whereas the latter has examined reasoning about a variety of issues pertaining to justice, welfare, and rights. Moral reasoning about school discipline has yet to be addressed in the research literature. The goal of the research presented here was to examine moral judgments of preservice teachers about possible school responses to harm and rights’ violations in a hypothetical school setting. Participants were 32 undergraduates, from diverse ethnic backgrounds, drawn from a teacher education program at a large public university. Moral judgments were assessed through interviews around issues of psychological harm (bullying on social media), physical harm (hitting), and theft. Participants were asked to make three different types of evaluations. The first was a general evaluation regarding whether the action entailed a moral transgression. The second involved choosing that which they considered best overall, most fair, least fair, most effective, and least effective among a list of four possible school responses (permissive, retributive/punitive, mixed retributive/restorative, and restorative). The third involved an open-ended response to a repeat-offense. Justifications were elicited for each evaluation. A majority of participants endorsed a restorative school response to all three situations as best overall, most fair, and most effective as well as for the repeat offense. A majority of participants considered the permissive response, as least fair and least effective. Additional findings demonstrate that participants’ approach to school discipline was multifaceted and entailed coordination of different features of the situation alongside myriad goals and considerations, such as the intentions of the actor, the nature of the offense, preventing future offenses, and maintaining school standards. The present research provides evidence of the need for inclusion of restorative practices and training in teacher education and professional development programs.

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