Restoring Justice in Schools

By RIDA ALI, age 11

The process of restorative justice begins with student mediation at this London elementary school. PHOTO: NCVO London/Flickr
The process of restorative justice begins with student mediation at this London elementary school in the United Kingdom. PHOTO: NCVO London/Flickr

At the Brooklyn New School (P.S. 146), fifth grade mediators go outside during their recess time to find conflict caused by younger students. For example, if someone is crying, the mediators ask what’s wrong. If a problem is found, the student mediators begin the process of resolving it with a set of rules so everyone respects each other. Once the rules are explained, mediators ask each student to share their side of the story and to consider what they could do next time to make sure it doesn’t happen again. This form of resolving conflict at school is called restorative justice.

Restorative justice shifts the way that a school community treats and views student behavioral issues. Hilary Lustick, PhD candidate in higher education at New York University, says, “Usually we think of a student who misbehaves as being the ‘harmer,’ but often he or she may have been harmed or affected in ways that need healing. Restorative justice allows those needs to surface so kids can feel a part of their school community even when they make mistakes.”

Restorative justice is all about learning to empathize and understand one another in order to grow through conflict, rather than zero-tolerance policies in which students are routinely punished for misbehaviors without opportunity to openly explore the root of the problem. PHOTO: Peter Durand/Flickr
Restorative justice is all about learning to understand each other by working together to explore problems at their roots. PHOTO: Peter Durand/Flickr

These practices involve creating an environment that builds a sense of community to stop conflicts from occurring. When students misbehave, their peers, teachers, parents and the school administrators address it as a community rather than punishing students through detention, suspension or expulsion under strict zero-tolerance policies. They help students to find out what they are doing wrong, why, how it affects others and how they can fix it.

Yolanda Holland, the trainer of peer mediators at P.S. 146, believes that zero-tolerance “suggests that a problem can never get better and that people should be thrown away” when they make a mistake. Not only this, but getting suspended usually leads to falling behind in class. Instead of restoring healing and growth, suspensions often ends with frustrated feelings and repeated misbehavior.

Getting behind in school can contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which pushes low-income students and children of color from school into the criminal justice system. A 2013 study by the University of California found that suspension of ninth graders doubled their chance of dropping out. In 2009, Northeastern University reported that high school dropouts were 63 percent more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates. Since a 2014 Department of Education study found that black students are suspended three times more often than their white peers, this issue also unequally affects students of color.

The school-to-prison pipeline is a metaphor for the phenomenon that casts children of color and low-income students away from school and into the criminal justice system. PHOTO: Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr
The school-to-prison pipeline is a metaphor for the phenomenon that pushes children of color and low-income students out of school and into the criminal justice system. PHOTO: Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr

Still, restorative practices do not replace suspension altogether. Lustick says that “they are a way of hopefully reducing how often suspensions need to happen, because they give students other ways of repairing the harm they have caused by being disruptive in class, fighting, etc.”

The results of using this approach have been good at the Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders in Brooklyn, NY, which started using restorative justice two and a half years ago. Their credit accumulation, student attendance and graduation rates have increased, said Principal David O’Hara.

Eighteen-year-old high school student Jhovani Becerra, who helped to bring restorative justice to his school in Denver, CO, thinks it has made a positive difference. He told the Huffington Post, “I have friends who attend [other schools] and the way they describe their administrators and teachers is different than my high school experience. They describe their school as a more pre-prison environment,” said Becerra. “I feel safer.”

Glossary of Terms:

Mediator – a person who helps individuals in a conflict to resolve their differences and come to a peaceful agreement
Zero-tolerance – a policy in schools that strictly punishes any rule-breaking, regardless of the circumstances

In the print version of this piece, published August 29, 2015, a quote by Hilary Lustick was misattributed to Naureen Madhani.

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