Alternative to the school-to-prison pipeline
In my last post I discussed the role the school-to-prison pipeline plays in increasing the gap in minority education. The consequences of zero tolerance school policies are many including stigmatization, dropping out of school, and/or getting a juvenile record. Some schools have begun to change their responses to deviance in schools by going away from zero tolerance policies and towards restorative justice models. Restorative justice is a proactive approach requiring wholesale cultural change in the punishment orientation of the school system based on improved responsibility and communication. The restorative justice program provides long-term change that emphasizes building relationships, improve behavior, reduce violence, and build community (Zehr, 2002).
Restorative justice is a strategy and theory that informs how communities can resolve problems that have caused harm or damaged relationships. Restorative justice prioritizes accountability and healing over punishment, shifting the focus from what rules were broken and what punishment is deserved to addressing the harm done and how to repair the harm (Karp & Breslin, 2001). In the school environment, restorative justice focuses on increasing the ability of students and school employees to solve problems, reconnect severed relationships, and re-empowering individuals to take responsibility for their actions. Restorative justice models recognize that when a person does harm, it influences the person they hurt, the wider community, and themselves (Morrison, Thorsborne, & Blood, 2005).
Schools have begun to adopt these programs as an alternative to suspensions or expulsions by repairing harm, and supporting students who are re-entering the school from suspension. The school-based restorative justice programs focus on a wide variety of issue including preventing deviance, intervention, and reintegration of students who have offended. School-based restorative justice programs recognize that schools are a community existing of a wide variety of members such as teachers, janitors, and students who have to work together to create a productive environment. Restorative justice programs take on many forms such as community accountability boards and Circle sentencing. The Circle process consists of vested participants (e.g., offender, victim, other students, school employees, family members, facilitator) sitting in a circle to address the harm caused by the action and come to an agreeable solution. The Circle process involves each participant having an equal voice using a talking piece that allows only person to speak at a time (Ashley & Burke, 2009). During the Circle process, each member of the group has the opportunity to set the rules of the meeting and what they want to achieve from the interaction.
Oakland Unified School District in Oakland, California has been using restorative justice to address disciplinary infractions for several years. In 2007 Oakland Unified School District teamed up with Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth for a pilot program in a single West Oakland Middle School which reduce violent incidents in the school and reduced suspension rates by 87 percent, saving the school thousands of dollars in attendance-related funding and avoiding concerns over disproportionate minority contact. Once the pilot project was completed over 20 principals in the city of Oakland requested the program be launched at their schools. Oakland made use of existing partnerships to facilitate the restorative processes while also training school officials to lead restorative circles. The circles are used to address disciplinary infractions (i.e., fighting, truancy, or insubordination), community building, and student reentry. The Circles are also used to address challenges outside of school, for instance, the circle can be used to discuss the harm caused by significant acts of violence (e.g., the Boston Marathon Bombing), to allow students to discuss their emotions, including concerns over their own safety. The application of the Circle process will address the goals and outcomes of the restorative justice model by focusing on addressing discipline, building community, providing a mechanism for conflict resolution (prevention), and increasing academic performance by keeping students in the school (Holtham, 2009).
The restorative justice programs in schools are showing success as they take instances previously resulting in suspension and keeping the student in school and in a positive environment. The emphasis of the program is making the situation right and not on punishing the student. These restorative programs are experiencing a decreased rates of suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to the criminal justice system (Claasen-Wilsen, 2001). Second, these schools that implement restorative justice models have fewer fights and physical altercations, fewer classroom disruptions, decrease in bullying and social claiming, and a greater sense of safety by students and school personnel through prevention (Ashley & Burke, 2009). Finally, schools that implement restorative justice models are achieving higher academic performance, increased communication between students and staff, and a more positive school climate (Fiene, 2001). The use of restorative justice can be an important tool in the fight against zero tolerance enforcement, the overrepresentation of minority students in the school-to-prison pipeline, and can improve education through keeping students in the classroom.
Ashley, J., & Burke, K. (2009). Implementing restorative justice: A guide for schools. Chicago, IL: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
Claasen-Wilson, D. (2001). Curious George and “repairing the harm” in schools. Denver, CO: Restorative Justice in Action.
Fiene, J. (2001). The three “r”s and the three “p”s using restorative justice as a tool for learning and drop out prevention. Denver, CO: Restorative Justice in Action.
Holtham, J. (2009). Just schools: A whole-school approach to restorative justice. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Karp, D., & Breslin, B. (2001). Restorative justice in school communities. Youth & Society, 33, 249-272.
Morrison, B., Thorsborne, M., & Blood, P. (2005). Practicing justice in school communities: The challenge of culture change. Public Organization Review: A Global Journal, 5, 335-357.
Zehr, H. (2002). The little book of restorative justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.