Wonky Word Wednesday: restorative justice

Dealing with students that have behavioral issues has become a challenge for school districts across the country. Rather than helping students make amends with their issue – a concept known as restorative justice, the “go-to” discipline response appears to be out -of-school suspensions and school arrests. Suspensions have increased throughout the country for non-violent offenses like disruptive behavior, violating dress codes, and missing too many days of school. This and other forms of “zero tolerance policies” do more harm than good for children, parents, schools, and our economy. In fact, it’s ineffective and counterintuitive to its intended purpose of changing bad behavior.

The restorative justice approach teaches students conflict resolution and aims to shift the school atmosphere for students and staff. Punitive approaches like arrests and school suspensions fail to address issues and may actually make things worse for student engagement and behavior. Studies find that students who have faced suspension are more likely to fail academically, drop out, engage in criminal activity, and have emotional issues. Suspensions also keep children away from valuable classroom time and place an unnecessary burden on parents who must figure out how to supervise suspended children during the workday.

When it comes who receives harsher punishments for behavior, it is minority students. According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, Arkansas is one of eleven states with greatest disparity between black and white children in suspension rates.

Last year, the Office of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas shared a report with the State Board of Education and found that students of color were suspended three times more often than white students. In regards to school arrests, a recent AACF report explains that Arkansas counties have on average 3,300 juvenile arrests per year. African American students make up 57 percent of the arrested population, but they only make up 21 percent of the K-12 population; so students of color are affected most by these ineffective “zero-tolerance” school discipline policies.

Instead of sending children home or arresting children for various actions, we recommend a restorative justice approach where school districts choose targeted methods focused on helping students work through issues and getting to the root problems they face.

Restorative justice approaches work and have worked for some time now even in other countries. They focus more on student development and rely less on classroom removals to address problems than one-size-fits-all school discipline policies.

The United States Department of Human Services and Department of Education wrote a letter to school districts last month urging them to implement restorative justice approaches. This letter also included a guidance package to give ideas for effective school discipline that would also keep districts from discriminating unintentionally. These ideas include things like adding school-based supports and academic services for students who are removed from the classroom, on site mentoring, and training school staffers on revised discipline policies and classroom management techniques.

School districts across the country are finally adopting this new approach and it works. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette recently reported a story about the Los Angeles School District – a high density, at-risk, urban school district in California. The school district reduced suspensions from 74,765 days to 8,351 – an 89 percent decrease from the prior year. Instead of immediate suspension, they trained teachers to build trust among students and attempt to handle any cases of students acting out within the classroom. If the situation was beyond a teacher’s control, the student is sent to the counselor, then principal, and suspended if needed. The school district has also hired a full-time restorative justice specialist to support staff and students in conflict resolution.

School districts in Newark – a high crime, high poverty area in New Jersey – are also determined to add restorative justice techniques in their school discipline practices. Newark Public Schools superintendent stated that they trained everyone from students to staff and police officers on “how to hold one another accountable for missteps in a healthy and solutions-oriented way.” Child Trends also offers evidence- based, “Alternatives to Zero Tolerance Policies” in a brief listed here.

We hope that school districts in Arkansas will choose restorative justice approaches to reduce out-of-classroom time, maintain safety and order in classrooms, and decrease the number of minority students targeted by harsh discipline practices.