During a rousing speech last week in Harlem, Hillary Clinton announced a $2 billion plan to end the school-to-prison pipeline, fueled in large part by overly punitive school disciplinary practices that disproportionately impact children of color. Her plan—and being a campaign proposal, it was a vague one—would incentivize the hiring of “school climate teams” comprising behavioral health specialists, social workers, and educators to help reform school discipline. There’s no single solution for fixing school discipline, but there is one reform philosophy that Clinton ought to embrace as part of this push: restorative justice, an alternative approach that has gained some popularity (and garnered some success) across the country.
Restorative justice programs focus on understanding the root causes of misbehavior. Some research suggests that restorative justice is successful in the criminal justice system, particularly at reducing recidivism. But in schools, these programs are difficult to implement. They require deep buy-in from teachers, students, and the community; training is time-consuming and costly.
So why embrace such a model? Because punitive school disciplinary practices have funneled students out of classrooms and into jail cells for years. In 2011, black (followed closely by Native American) children were 10 times more likely to be expelled than their Asian and Pacific Islander counterparts, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center says out of school suspension rates are highest for black children, at 15 percent, followed by Latino students, at 6 percent.
Restorative justice programs essentially focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment. Schools that use the model try to understand and address the deficits that provoke students to misbehave, and teach students how to reconcile the consequences of their actions with all those affected by them.
Common among restorative justice programs are “circle talks,” used to help build trust so students can talk about the sometimes tough reasons—issues of poverty, racism, or homophobia, for example—that explain why a rule was broken. Once the cause of the misbehavior is understood, an appropriate intervention or consequence can be devised. Other practices include peer mediation programs or student justice panels.
The method is in use in a few notable places, like the Oakland Unified School District in California. “Whole school restorative justice” began there in 2005, though by 2012 the district still faced a federal civil rights investigation for high suspension and expulsion rates among black boys specifically. Since then, the district has committed funds to expand restorative services and eliminated suspension and involuntary school transfers for “defiant” behavior; the vague category often included petty missteps such as refusing to remove a hat or storming out of class. The district reports a narrowing of the “discipline gap” between black and white students: the percentage of student participants who were suspended dropped by half from 34 percent in 2011 to 14 percent two years later. Similar programs can be found in schools in Chicago; Duval County, Florida; Nashville, Tennessee; across Texas; and elsewhere.
Experts say one of the biggest challenges to reforming disciplinary policies is getting teachers, forever strapped for time, to commit to something that asks for more of theirs. Kevin Curtis, an education consultant, says schools are short on instruction time. So when he and his colleagues “come in and say you need to slow down,” schools with behavior problems see that as “counterproductive.”
Curtis, who was previously an assistant principal and restorative justice coordinator at a San Antonio middle school, understands the frustration. A self-described disciplinarian, he insists that he’s “not here to tell you that you should hug all your kids and send them back to class” when they break the rules. When skeptics think restorative justice is too soft, he presses them to consider whether their current rules are working. Usually, they’re not.
Some districts hire consultants like Curtis to help them design programs, or send teachers to outside training. Kathy Evans, an assistant professor of education at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, says that ideally, schools should hire a full-time coordinator to shape the program after initial training. “They know the school, the context. They’re going to be able to make decisions about the plan that needs to happen in that particular school,” she says.
But because cash-strapped districts may be unable to do so, she recommends a group of trained teachers keep the program running. Clinton’s plan, which would reward schools for at least an initial investment in reforms, could make it easier for schools, in the long run, to hire full-time, school-based coordinators.
Such programs would also require flexibility from school administrators. At Lyons Community School in Brooklyn, a peer-mediation program trains student duos to mediate disputes between other students. When students need mediation, at least four kids (sometimes eight, if a new duo is observing as part of their training) must be allowed to leave class to participate.
To accomplish this, the school replaced its deans with “youth advocates” who advise student mediators, coordinate with teachers, and organize the schedule. The school also has a restorative justice coordinator. Such radical changes would make for a complicated shift in any school, federal funding or not.
Evans believes racial disparities evident in suspension and expulsion rates are a crucial civil rights issue. But she worries that top-down pressures might make schools pursue restorative justice programs without proper planning, and for the wrong reasons. “The last thing teachers need is just one more thing to do that they then resent,” she says. “If we implement policy shifts without grassroots buy-in, I fear we end up with resentful teachers who aren’t implementing it with any integrity.”
President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative in some cases led to the hasty adoption of reforms, including teacher evaluations, that were later abandoned or overhauled. Similarly, Clinton’s rewards program could provoke schools to rush implementation of alternate plans like restorative justice, botching badly needed reforms.
But schools have in the past demonstrated that, sometimes, federal pressure is necessary. Evans grew up in Mississippi and says she’s not convinced that schools there would be integrated today if the government hadn’t intervened. “I realize we’ve got to quit suspending and expelling kids of color. Until we can change those school climates, maybe we have to have some top-down policies to protect students,” she says. Clinton vowed to ask the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to investigate school districts that fail to implement adequate reforms.*
Taeko Onishi, principal of Lyons Community School, where restorative justice has been used for the school’s entire nine-year history, stressed that offering lucrative rewards for reductions in suspension and expulsion rates won’t guarantee the overall success of restorative justice or any other alternative program. “This is the end result you want, but [it] is not going to be the thing that changes your school or community,” says Onishi. “It helps you think about what choices you need to make.” Instead, Onishi says, the government could provide funding for collaboration, allowing mentor schools with established restorative programs to help others usher in their own (similar to the New York City Department of Education’s Learning Partners Program, aimed at improving academic outcomes at struggling schools).
Despite these concerns, any federal plans to combat the school-to-prison pipeline are encouraging, and schools can certainly use a nudge in the right direction. But without thoughtful support structures that will assist schools through the transition, any attempt could risk becoming mere lip service to an issue that continues to plague the nation’s most vulnerable children.
*Correction, Feb. 23, 2016: This post originally misidentified the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights as the Office of Civil Rights.