Restorative Justice: Help is on the Way for Our Kids, II

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Drawing by Elizabeth Wagele

In Part I, the Restorative Justice coordinator asked the principal to allow him to try a restorative approach with Tommy instead of suspending him. Tommy’s teacher told how earlier in the year another student had assaulted her. “She was terrified it was about to happen again with Tommy. After the incident… she had considered quitting. Tommy apologized again for the outburst and offered to make amends by helping her with after-school chores for the next few weeks. The teacher agreed to show more compassion in the future if she noticed a student’s head down on the desk.

“Taking responsibility, Tommy’s mother apologized to her son and all present. She rededicated herself to treatment and was referred to the campus drug rehabilitation counselor. After the circle and with follow-up, Tommy’s family life, grades, and behavior improved. The teacher remained at the school.

“…If the school had responded in the usual way by suspending Tommy, harm would have been replicated, not healed. Punitive justice asks only what rule or law was broken, who did it, and how they should be punished. It responds to the original harm with more harm. Restorative justice (RJ) asks who was harmed and what are the needs and obligations of all affected.” Then they figure out how to heal the harm.

“… Had he been suspended, Tommy’s chances of engaging in violence and being incarcerated would have increased. Suspension likely would have exacerbated harm on all sides—to Tommy, his teacher, his family, and his community. His teacher would have been deprived of hearing Tommy’s story. She might have quit teaching and remained trapped in trauma.

“If Tommy had been suspended and left unsupervised—as most suspended students are—he would have been behind in his coursework when he returned. Trapped in an under-resourced school without adequate tutoring and counseling, Tommy would have had a hard time catching up. He would have been three times more likely to drop out by 10th grade than students who had never been suspended.

“Worse, had Tommy dropped out, his chances of being incarcerated later in life would have tripled. Seventy-five percent of the nation’s inmates are high school dropouts.

“…Use of suspensions has almost doubled since the 1970’s. Black students are disproportionately impacted. According to data from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts for comparable offenses.

“…A student’s sense of belonging to a high school community is a top protective factor against violence and incarceration. In addition to convening restorative justice circles like Tommy’s, RJ in Oakland also uses circles proactively to deepen relationships and create a school culture of connectivity, thereby reducing the likelihood that harm will occur.

“An RJ middle school pilot eliminated violence and expulsions, while reducing school suspension rates by 87 percent… At one of the RJ school sites, student suspensions decreased 74 percent after two years and referrals for violence fell 77 percent after one year. Racial disparity in discipline was eliminated. Graduation rates and test scores increased.

“…The Oakland school board passed a resolution adopting RJ as a system-wide alternative to zero-tolerance discipline and as a way of creating stronger and healthier school communities.

“Young high school students in Oakland with failing grades and multiple incarcerations who were not expected to graduate not only graduate but achieve 3.0-plus GPAs. Some have become class valedictorians. Girls who have been long-time enemies become friends after sitting in a peacemaking circle. Instead of fighting, students come into the restorative justice room and ask for a circle… Youth report they are doing circles at home with their families. High school graduates are returning to their schools to ask for circles to address conflict outside the school.

“Oakland is considered one of the most violent cities in the nation. However, today hundreds of Oakland students are learning a new habit. Instead of resorting to violence, they are being empowered to engage in restorative processes that bring together persons harmed with persons responsible for harm in a safe and respectful space, promoting dialogue, accountability, a deeper sense of community, and healing.”

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