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Restorative Justice Alternatives Will Keep Kids in the Classroom

The way that behavior is managed in schools can be crucial, especially in this time when “school-to-prison pipelines” are realities for many students. Schools are often quick to impose suspensions that leave students out of classrooms during school-day hours. This problem, however, does not impact all students equally. Across the country, Black students are three times as likely to be suspended than white students, according to findings of the Civil Rights Data Collection. Research shows that placing law enforcement officers in schools only adds to suspensions, expulsions, and even arrests. One way to challenge school-to-prison pipelines is to replace zero tolerance policies with Restorative Justice alternatives.

During the 2015-2016 school year, students in the United States missed about 11 million school days due to suspensions, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report, “11 Million Days Lost: Race, Discipline, and Safety at U.S. Schools.” Children are suspended for “offenses” including being tardy, talking back, or using “inappropriate” language. When students miss school for minor misconduct, they lose valuable class time, which lowers school performance.

In an article titled “Do Zero Tolerance School Discipline Policies Go Too Far?,” TIME Magazine highlighted the story of Janeisha, a ninth-grade student who fell behind in school. Her frustration grew, which made her more likely to act out. For many like Janeisha, after getting suspended even once, chances of graduating decrease, while chances of dropping out increase.

Though many people think solutions to in-school discipline issues include hiring police officers to work in schools, introducing “school resource officers” (SROs) to the situation can actually make matters worse. American schools began implementing SROs in schools after the Columbine shooting. Naturally parents and legislators want to keep children safe. But Marc Schindler, director of Justice Policy Institute, says there is no evidence that SROs actually make schools safer. In fact, many students report feeling unsafe in the presence of SROs. Also, data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that the poorest and least-white schools are most likely to have SROs. These students are thus subjected to arrest and sometimes harassment more often than white, middle-class counterparts. For example, in 2015, a Black student was violently dragged across a classroom and arrested by an SRO at a school in South Carolina. SROs frequently charge students not with serious crimes like assault or theft, but instead with “disorderly conduct” or “disturbing peace.” Simply put, SROs become another link in a pipeline that channels vulnerable children into the formal criminal justice system.

SROs are often employed at schools with zero tolerance policies: not surprisingly, then, the children most impacted by these policies are Black students and students with disabilities. The 2015-2016 CRDC School Climate and Safety report states that though Black males only accounted for eight percent of the student population in America, they make up one in four of those suspended. Black females also represent eight percent of the student population, but 14 percent were suspended. Overall, Black students are far more likely to lose days of instruction. Similarly, students with disabilities make up 12 percent of the national student body but, when it comes to suspensions, they make up 26 percent. These students lose 44 days of school for every 100.

In Madison, the statistics are no better; in fact, they are even worse. In 2015, the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) was 16 percent Black, yet Black students accounted for an astounding 60 percent of those suspended. In Madison’s schools, IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) students make up about 14 percent of the student population, but nearly 41 percent suffer out-of-school suspensions. Clearly, this problem is local as well as national.

These statistics are alarming. But imagine living it. Imagine being a Black student in America. Imagine what it feels like to know you are a part of a system that—whether intentionally or not—sometimes treats students who look like you as criminals. In my school classrooms, I’ve seen teachers threaten students with referrals for as little as playing with a paperclip. I’ve seen students sent to the office for leaving class at the wrong time. And I’ve seen students not come back to school for up to three days for these “offenses.” I notice that most of these students are Black. I always wondered about this, because I know most of the students being suspended and I know they aren’t dangerous or harmful. They are kind and smart and deserve to be in class. They have the right to be in class. As a Black teen in Madison, I always think to myself, we’re just kids. A lot of times, I know when my peers act out, there are underlying factors or personal issues that teachers might not know about.

It’s easy to feel helpless, especially as a kid, when you’re stuck in a system that historically disadvantages people who look like me. But I refuse to sit by and watch as school-to-prison pipelines claim the lives of more of my classmates. So I speak up. I act. I choose to tell my story, and the story of my peers, as a reporter for Simpson Street Free Press. And last year, I was chosen to be a Restorative Justice Circle Keeper. The YWCA of Madison brought Restorative Justice to our school. In classes I attended once a week, we learned about racism, biases and stereotypes, and school-to-prison pipelines. We learned to look deeper at this problem. I always knew the pipeline existed, but for the first time I gained the language to describe it. Through this program, I realized that public school isn’t just a place to go, learn, and make friends. It’s a trap. Children of color enter without knowing they might leave early through the pipeline, before they even have the chance to earn a diploma.

America must change school discipline practices if we are to deal with racial disparities. Restorative Justice has taught me that punishing people by isolating them from other people is ineffective: it rarely benefits students or the school. Restorative Justice focuses on giving back rather than taking away, on asking questions, getting to the bottom of issues. Rather than sending offenders away, Restorative Justice asks them to repair the damage they caused. This method has been used around the world for centuries, but Western ideals of justice are too often about “an eye for an eye.” Restorative Justice practices in American schools would mean eliminating zero-tolerance policies. The Hechinger Report states: “In the U.S., for example, juvenile courts that practice Restorative Justice have significantly reduced recidivism compared with those using traditional approaches.” A 2016 study by the University of St. Thomas reported that Michigan’s Lansing School District started using Restorative Justice in 2005 and by 2008, suspensions were down and achievement went up.

Another practical solution is to replace SROs with trained counselors and psychologists. This would give students appropriate outlets for negative feelings that can cause them to act out or lead to being removed from classrooms.

It might not be easy, but it will be worth the effort. We can curb the use of zero tolerance policies that continue to disenfranchise groups of students who are already targeted by a biased criminal justice system. Middle school, and high school, should be a time of growth and learning. Students can’t grow and learn if they’re kept out of class. Students need to be in classrooms—not in a pipeline. We need to work toward keeping children behind books, not bars.

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