From “zero-tolerance” to “restorative justice”

Dana Goldstein. A Fascinating Way to Put a Stop to the School-to-Prison Pipeline for Black Children. AlterNet, 4/7/14.

Destiny was in eighth grade when, in the middle of an altercation with another student, she grabbed a teacher’s jacket and threw it out of a classroom window.

She was enrolled at the Lyons Community School in Brooklyn, N.Y., where almost every kid is black or Latino and living in poverty. Only five percent are meeting standards in math and reading.

New federal data shows that across the United States, schools with demographics like these tend to respond to bad behavior with aggressive force. Principals put students as young as four years old into isolation rooms or suspension, kicking them off campus for days or even weeks at a time. School-based police officers — in New York City there are more of them than there are school psychologists or social workers — sometimes respond to offenses as trivial as talking back to a teacher with physical restraints or even arrest.

But Destiny was not isolated, suspended or arrested. She wasn’t even sent to detention. Instead, wearing gold hoop earrings and a t-shirt with a big pink heart, she appeared, a little jittery, before a “justice panel” of four teenage peers. They listened to Destiny’s side of the story (she didn’t know the jacket belonged to the teacher, she said) and determined her punishment: a face-to-face apology to the teacher, two days of community service cleaning up her classroom during lunch, and a follow-up conference with the peer panel to discuss what she had learned from the incident.

As depicted in a 2013 documentary called ” Growing Fairness,” Destiny accepted her sentence without complaint. An adult dean supervised the proceedings, but did not intervene.

…These new kid courts, in which students are empowered to set school rules and mete out the punishments for breaking them, are sometimes called “restorative justice.” The concept, borrowed from the world of legal mediation, shows real evidence of working in schools. Using restorative tactics, Lyons decreased its suspension rate by more than 20 percent since 2008.

Now Lyons is part of a growing national movement of educators offering a practical alternative to harsh “zero tolerance” school discipline policies, which proliferated in the wake of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. Though the Columbine massacre was perpetrated by two white students at a majority-white, suburban school, it is urban students of color who have shouldered the heaviest burdens of the zero-tolerance push. Those kids have the most to gain from radically upending how school discipline gets done.

Investigations by the Obama administration found that some school districts are nakedly applying one set of rules to middle-class white kids who use profanity or disrupt class (lots of second chances) while black children who commit the same misdeeds are three times as likely to get kicked off campus after just one incident.

…It’s true that many KIPP schools are academically stellar, which has a lot to do with their extended school day and intense focus on college planning. But it’s difficult to imagine large numbers of middle-class parents ever accepting the disciplinary strategies popular at “no excuses” schools like KIPP: students marching through the hallways in military silence, required to sit with their limbs arranged just-so and with their eyes constantly locked on the teacher; and, in one KIPP school, isolating misbehaving children in a padded, windowless chamber the size of a walk-in closet, for up to 20 minutes at a time.

Those strategies do not reflect middle-class child-rearing norms. Research by the sociologist Annette Lareau shows that middle-class and affluent parents expect schools to approach student discipline in much the same way such parents do at home: by allowing kids to explain their side of the story and then negotiate a fair set of consequences.

About G Bitch

A mad black woman in New Orleans.
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2 Responses to From “zero-tolerance” to “restorative justice”

  1. Latrell Taylor says:

    OMG!! I’m going through the same thing with my 13yr old son. This year hs been a journey for us. He is on the verge of being retained in the 7th grade because of his behavior. The rules at his school is is you disrupt the class youa re put in TOC (Time Out Corner) where he misses class. He says he is also not given the opportunity to express himself.

    • G Bitch says:

      I am SO sorry to hear that. I do not think that kind of “discipline” helps the student, especially when used to such an extent the student misses [needed!] instructional time. Do you have any alternatives? Have you called the New Orleans School Justice Line, 504-365-3006? What are you doing, or can you do, for him this year? [This age is critical; often, this is age is when we "lose" our boys and school gets knocked off their list until the bitter end.] Is there a way to preserve 7th grade, summer school, online, something I of course know jack about?

      Please let me know: gbspotmail[at]gmail[dot]com.

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