By Kristin Schwam, Dignity in Schools Campaign
On July 16th, 17th, and 18th, Teachers Unite, a Dignity in Schools Campaign member, held a three-day training workshop titled “Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Bringing Restorative Justice to Our Schools.” I was fortunate to attend a roundtable on the implementation of restorative justice in New York City public schools, in which teachers, social workers, and administrators from all different types of schools came together to discuss how restorative justice practices are reshaping discipline in their respective schools and to share ideas for making the practices even more effective and sustainable.
The problems that affect the different schools range from gang violence to language barriers, and all of the different schools had different ways of approaching discipline policies. Despite the differences in disciplinary issues throughout the different schools, the teachers and administrators that attended the roundtable all agreed that discipline policies in public schools need to change so that they better serve the interest of students.
Matthew Guildin, a former dean at East Side Community High School, located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, gave a detailed account about how the students and staff defined what respectful behavior was, and wrote a guideline that they were accountable to throughout the year. Rules ranged from “Be accountable/ take responsibility for your words and actions,” to “Use positive body language and tone of voice (no head on desk, eye rolling, sucking of teeth, etc).”
A few schools use fairness committees as an alternative to punitive discipline. Fairness committees are called when one member of the community brings another to the committee, believing that the person violated one of the core values of the school. Fairness committees are used by students and teachers alike. A teacher may bring a student to a fairness committee for consistently talking back in class. Likewise, a student may bring a teacher to a fairness committee session if he or she thinks the teacher violated a school value.
Nicholas Merchant-Bleiberg, the assistant principal at Lyons Community School in Brooklyn, New York, reflected on how the discipline policies at his school have changed since Lyons opened its doors 6 years ago. As Nicholas described it, Lyons Community School was founded to become a place where students who were pushed out of other schools could attend and continue their education. Yet opening its doors to at-risk students engulfed Lyons in a plethora of discipline issues.
During the first couple years, Lyons was plagued with student gang violence and students intimidating teachers, among other issues. Nicholas admitted that the school took a “law and order” approach to discipline, because the administration felt it was the best way to keep the school safe, and to keep classrooms environments for learning.
But as time went by, the school realized that the sheer numbers of students that were being suspended and expelled did nothing to help the students of the school community. Recognizing that the school needed to do much more than suspend and expel students to create a better community, Lyons Community School adopted restorative justice practices to effectively guide students. Teachers at Lyons use restorative circles as a teaching technique and as a way to resolve conflict between students.
Additionally, Lyons Community School created a Justice Panel, upon which twelve students sit (two from each 7-12 grade). Students and staff both can suggest that certain issues be brought to the justice panel, and the twelve students discuss and recommend solutions for disciplinary incidents and community issues.
These alternative discipline programs are working, and not just because the adults in the room say so. Omar, a student at Bronx International High School, attested to the fact that the school’s leadership program, which any student can be a part of, certainly had its merits, and helped a great number of students avoid conflict and trouble. His school, which is made up of primarily English language learners, faces a lot of problems that are created by language barriers. Through the school’s leadership program, students from all different backgrounds are brought together, and learn to work together, even though they might not completely understand each other.
A guidance counselor from the Bushwick Campus in Brooklyn stressed that it was very important for restorative justice to show the student the whole picture. For example, she stated that if one student calls another student a name, a racial slur, the student might have offended ten other people in the room without meaning to.
The Bushwick Campus created the Leaders in Conflict Resolution, which is a student-led program that exists to develop positive ways to deal with conflict at the campus. Angelina, a student leader, believes the program is really affecting the school, in a positive way. “This program taught me how to handle things differently. I believe it has impacted the school, because I see a lot of people handling problems by talking it out with the other person, or talking about their personal issues with a close friend.”
Despite the different approaches to restorative justice in schools, all of the teachers, administrators, and advocates agreed on one principle: there is always more that can be done. For every school that engages in restorative justice, there are three more that still stick with the draconian zero-tolerance policy. Many who are involved in education think that restorative justice is “soft” and the easy route to take, but the people at the roundtable ardently disagreed. Restorative justice requires a great deal of time on the part of teachers, administrators, and supporters, and requires them to work a lot more closely with the student in question.
It would be easier for schools to suspend students instead of working with them to maximize their students’ chances for success. Fortunately, there are groups of dedicated individuals around the country that will not stop until the school pushout is ended. One of these groups opted to meet on one of summer’s hottest days to talk about how they can improve the livelihoods of their students by relying on restorative justice practices instead of suspensions and expulsions. It’s a really good thing that there is a dedicated group of adults ready to be held accountable for their students’ futures, and are doing everything in their power to ensure students don’t get pushed out.
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