Restoring Justice: Repairing the harm punitive discipline has brought upon our school communities

Disproportionality is rampant in discipline across the U.S. We now know restorative justice improves disproportionality. So, why aren’t we using it to address disproportionality everywhere? Here are some facts: “In 2011-2012, 16.4% of Black students were suspended or expelled compared to 4.6% of White students. Across the nation, nearly one of every four Black students in middle and high school was suspended at least once during a single school year: 2009-2010.” (Losen, 2015). Here are some more facts: In districts across the country, leaders are committing to abandoning their long-held attachment to punitive discipline and are embracing positive discipline, restorative discipline. This discipline repairs broken school communities. Mends them. Rebuilds them. Helps them thrive. Creates environments where students have an active voice in how the community repairs harm and where responsibility is still fostered but in a more responsive and nurturing way. Here is one example from one of our colleagues who has been successfully facilitating restorative practices trainings in New York.

Jordan Fullam, Ph.D Candidate at NYU, and Project Associate at the Technical Assistance Center on Disproportionality, facilitated a training on restorative circle practices and the work quickly showed an impact through changes in classroom practice. One high school psychology teacher who attended the training on circle practices shared the following account of a breakthrough he experienced in his class.

“Hi guys,

I had to share what just happened in my last class. I was working toward making a point about self-defining memories and asked the class to circle and recall a memory that had an impact on them. I told them the memory did not have to be overly deep or personal, but keep it simple and they should be able to share it with the class. This was my third class doing this activity. The fifth student in the circle shared something very poignant and two kids later did the same. It actually had students in tears as the stories became more personal.

I thought that I was losing control of the circle but saw such a humanitarian side in the kids that I didn’t want to stop it. I let it go even though it was taking longer than I wanted it to since it was working so well.

When everyone was finished sharing, those 3 quick memories set the mood for my discussion of self-defining memory better than ANYTHING I could have done or have ever done through traditional lecture in a decade of teaching the course. It was AMAZING. Granted, my other classes haven’t progressed this far, but I now truly see the potential of using circles and believe I can work to help my other classes get there as well.

Thanks so much for your insight. I hope to see you in October. Have a great weekend.”

~High School Teacher

Jordan reflected on this email and his work in this rural Northeastern district, “It illustrates how shifting to a student-centered discussion approach ensures opportunity and access for all students in a culturally responsive manner. Continuing the work around restorative practices at the high school and exploring more deeply how to develop this capacity will contribute to reducing punitive practices that lead to disproportionate suspensions.”

We want to explore Jordan’s reflection further and we have to because a new report shows that these restorative practices- the ones this teacher is mentioning in the email- they reduce discipline disparities and overall suspension rates (The Center for Civil Rights Remedies, 2015). For those of us who work everyday in schools fighting racial inequities and disproportionality in suspension of students with disabilities, this is a hugely important finding. Now we can pair the anecdotal evidence from the fieldwork of partners like Jordan Fullam who have long seen the impact of restorative practices on relationships, climate, and culture in schools.

However, we must proceed vigilantly into this shift as more and more districts come to know and understand the importance, impact, and value of restorative justice. You see the same implicit biases that infect our traditional discipline systems, our instructional practices, and all of our relationships and interactions in school, impact the effectiveness of restorative practices for our Black and Brown students. A recent study found, “schools with proportionately more Black students are less likely to use techniques [like student conferences, peer mediation, restitution, and community service] when responding to student behavior” (Payne & Welch, 2015). Researchers found that “a greater percentage of Black students decreased the likelihood that a school would use an overall restorative justice model of discipline” (Payne & Welch, 2015). The findings were attributed to what is known as racial threat perspective, or the idea that the increased number of Blacks in a community “will intensify public punitiveness because of the perceived political, economic, or criminal threat that a relatively large minority population presents to the white majority” (Payne & Welch, 2015). Thus we must be asking the same questions we ask ourselves of any practice we introduce into our classrooms and schools: Is racial bias at play here? Is racial stereotyping at play here? To whose culture is this practice responding? Is this practice responsive to the needs, assets, and interests of my Black and Brown students? How can I be applying this practice more responsively for my Black and Brown students?

Restorative justice, by its nature, is a responsive practice, but we suggest that schools cannot simply implement a practice of restorative justice without considering the disparate impact that implicit bias will continue to have in the application or selective application of community-building principles on their students of color. We must welcome and establish critically reflective practices amongst our staff as we develop restorative justice in our schools, beginning with the terminology we use with which to describe the players.

Many in the restorative justice community will use the terms “offender” and “victim” to refer to the student who has wronged the community and the student who has been wronged, but if you read our previous blog post, you know we feel tension with this. Before we go so far as to label our students with these terms borrowed from the criminal justice system, can we just call them what they are: the student who has caused a harm? the student who has been harmed?

Next we have to consider the reach of restorative justice. Can we use it as a supplement? Can we start it just in one classroom? Just one school? Schools must see it “as an opportunity to build students’ capacity to consider how their behavior is impacting the greater school community rather than a punitive reaction to students’ inability to follow a set of rules” (Payne & Welch, 2015). We would add to that schools must also see this as an opportunity to invest in relationships. To see this as an investment they simply must capitalize on. Research tells us that the quality of the teacher-student relationship is one of the most leveragable effects on closing achievement gaps (Boykin & Noguera, 2011). Restorative justice is not simply a set of strategies or components of a handbook. It is “a whole philosophy”  (Payne & Welch, 2015). Research also suggests it is most effective and sustainable when implemented across the district at all levels, not just in one classroom, program, or school.

What is most important to understand about this whole philosophy of restorative justice is the development of a community, one that truly cares when relationships are broken, when members are harmed, and that allows folks to make mistakes and make up for them by repairing the harm they cause. This idea of community is easily understood in a comparison of two models for justice systems- vertical and horizontal systems of justice. In a vertical, or adversarial system of justice, there is a hierarchy of power (The Honorable Robert Yazzie, Chief Justice of the Navajo Nation, 1994). “Power is an active element in the process.” So, in our criminal justice system, the parties-through their lawyers- present evidence, and judges and juries determine what the “truth” is, and then within the hierarchical system of appellate courts, findings about the veracity of that truth can be made at a number of levels. Determinations are made as to what is right or wrong, who is right or wrong, or good or bad, and again, it all comes down to power.Contrast this with a horizontal system of justice, where one might say the motto is “where there is hurt, there must be healing” (The Honorable Robert Yazzie, Chief Justice of the Navajo Nation, 1994). In this system, “no person is above another” and the symbol a circle is meant to demonstrate that there is unity and oneness (The Honorable Robert Yazzie, Chief Justice of the Navajo Nation, 1994). Here, the focus is on repair and healing, and community discussion is the norm (The Honorable Robert Yazzie, Chief Justice of the Navajo Nation, 1994).

Quite the contrast. Restorative justice finds roots in a horizontal system and “concerns itself with appropriate consequences that encourage accountability, but accountability that emphasizes empathy and repair of harm” (Amstutz & Mullet, 2014). “Restorative justice promotes values and principles that use inclusive, collaborative approaches for being in community. These approaches validate the experiences and needs of everyone within the community, particularly those who have been marginalized, oppressed or harmed. These approaches allow us to act and respond in ways that are healing rather than alienating or coercive” (Amstutz & Mullet, 2014). Such a powerful explanation of the practice and such a clear delineation of why exactly this practice can be so effective at addressing racial and ethnic disproportionality in discipline. Restorative justice gives a voice to the lived experiences of those students who have been marginalized. It lets them know that harm to them matters too. It lets them know that even when they make a mistake and harm someone else, that they can repair it. If that is not culturally responsive to the needs of students, then we are not sure, what would be…

Ultimately, we know a few things in this moment.

  1. We know restorative justice is effective in improving disproportionality in discipline.
  2. We know we disproportionately discipline our Black and Brown students.
  3. We also know in schools where there are higher percentages of Black and Brown students there is a greater likelihood punitive discipline will be used (think vertical justice) and less likelihood restorative practices will be used (think horizontal justice).

So what does this mean? It is imperative that we, as critically conscious educators, as advocates for Black and Brown students, that we, not only demand the expansion and proper training on the use of restorative practices at more schools in this country. But we also must hold our schools accountable once we are using restorative justice to be continuously critical in monitoring any disparities in the use of each of the various restorative practice techniques [read: student conferences, peer mediation, circles, restitution, etc.] and we must demand that our fellow educators have access to anti-bias trainings that ensure this and any other practices brought into our schools ensure opportunity and access to our Black and Brown students in a culturally responsive manner.

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