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Disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline in America’s schools

1.2. 2020 Written By: Sheryl Wilson 1,581 read

This article comes from the January issue of The Mennonite, which focuses on “Education: Restorative justice.” Read more reflections here or subscribe here to receive more original features in your inbox each month.

Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another. —Zechariah 7:9

In today’s society, true justice can be administered through restorative justice. Restorative justice is a holistic way to repair harm in the aftermath of crime or wrongdoing. A typical criminal justice process involves victims and offenders, but restorative justice involves victims, offenders and community members. Although restorative justice prioritizes the needs of harmed parties, it also seeks accountability for those who cause harm and gives voice to community members.

Howard Zehr, a renowned expert on restorative justice, gives the following definition in The Little Book of Restorative Justice: “Restorative justice is a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.”

Clockwise from left: John McCabe Juhnke, Sharon Kniss, Christine Crouse-Dick, Siobhan Scarry, and Dan Quinlin, teachers at Bethel College, North Newton, Kan., engaged in dialogue using a circle process. Photo by Taylor Brown/Bethel College

Implementation of restorative practices has increasingly gained ground in the past decade in K-12 schools around the United States. This may be due to the ways restorative practices, a form of restorative justice when applied to schools, helps create a climate where students and teachers feel heard and respected, discipline applied to students is more effective, and a culture shift occurs naturally due to collective buy-in from the community.

Today’s schools have the role of doing so much more than educating students. Schools are community beacons, administering social services, providing medical services, providing basic shelter, providing food sources and attempting to meet many other needs. In being so many things for so many, schools often become an environment where communities model the behaviors they want to see elsewhere. One of the biggest challenges for schools is the responsibility to reverse the school-to-prison pipeline.

Students who are suspended or expelled from school are more likely to drop out of school and therefore more likely to go to prison in their lifetime. According to the Teaching Tolerance website, the school-to-prison pipeline represents “policies that encourage police presence at schools, harsh tactics, including physical restraint, and automatic punishments that result in suspensions and out-of-class time are huge contributors to the pipeline, but the problem is more complex than that. The school-to-prison pipeline starts (or is best avoided) in the classroom. When combined with zero-tolerance policies, a teacher’s decision to refer students for punishment can mean they are pushed out of the classroom—and much more likely to be introduced into the criminal justice system.”

The implementation of restorative practices in schools may not abolish the school to prison pipeline, but it has the power to disrupt it.

The disruptors that allow restorative justice to thrive are these: developing a good understanding of racism, making suspensions a last resort in school discipline (by eliminating zero-tolerance policies) and whole school implementation of restorative practices. These disruptors have been effective in providing ways for restorative justice to have a big impact on schools and communities around the country.

Developing a good understanding of racism

Restorative practices alone cannot provide a solution to the challenges created by the school-to-prison pipeline. Understanding racism is a direct response to recognizing those caught up in the pipeline—black and brown students. Often these students are unfairly punished in schools and are overrepresented by suspensions, which leads to them being drummed out of school in larger numbers than their white counterparts. When students are drummed out of school, they are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system, which criminalizes black and brown behaviors in larger numbers than whites.

Often the way we begin to understand racism is through education. Antiracism training provides a baseline for giving the community a common vocabulary and lens to discuss hot button topics. But what tends to happen is that people stop after taking an antiracism training. Antiracism work must continue beyond training, and ongoing support is necessary in order to accomplish that. Antiracism work must also be held accountable by communities of color and done with great humility.

For good measure, another important training that helps restorative justice thrive is implicit bias training. The National Association for Building Community Trust and Justice describes implicit bias as “the automatic association people make between groups of people and stereotypes about those groups. Under certain conditions, those automatic associations can influence behavior—making people respond in biased ways even when they are not explicitly prejudiced.” School administrators, staff and faculty may not be aware of their influence regarding discipline and academic placement of students. This awareness can help lessen the racial disparities in a school or school district.

Restorative justice is a great companion to antiracism and implicit bias trainings because it is important to consider how people have difficult conversations on race and discuss how we want to be together in community. Circle process, a restorative practice, allows all participants in a discussion a voice. In circle process all participants sit in a circle and use a talking piece to guide the discussion: Whoever has the talking piece has the floor, those who do not have the talking piece are asked to listen to the speaker and no one is prioritized over another.

According to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity: “students of color often bear the brunt of pervasive implicit racial biases and decisions related to school discipline, and the ramifications of these disparities, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, can have considerable negative consequences that affect students’ overall life trajectories. Education professionals should consider ways unconscious biases may be affecting discipline decisions in their districts and schools through a deeper understanding of the influence of implicit biases.”

Making suspensions a last resort in school discipline

Although many schools are abolishing zero-tolerance policies, there is still a tendency to remove students from the school through suspensions when they commit certain offenses. When schools make the decision to implement restorative practices, a common outcome is a reduction in suspensions. When the school-to-prison pipeline is disrupted by eliminating zero-tolerance policies, students (especially black and brown students) benefit from participation in restorative practices that help them address harm while keeping them in the school. The goal is to co-create positive schools with students, families and the local community and limit police involvement in school infractions.

If a student is suspended, all is not lost. A restorative solution is possible when students return to school. Employing the use of a re-entry circle provides an opportunity for a student who caused harm to reintegrate into a school community. The student participates in a circle with parents, faculty, staff and students who have an interest in the student’s success to set goals to create a successful post-suspension experience for the student and those impacted by the harm.

Whole school restorative practices implementation creates a culture shift

When all administration, staff and faculty are trained in restorative practices, the community can’t help but be affected by the change that occurs when all people speak the same language and work toward the same goals. A restorative community highlights the disparities of students of color in order to affect positive change. Students tend to feel more trusted in an environment where they can more fully express themselves.

Oakland Unified School District is a good example of a community that has experienced a culture shift due to restorative practices. They have made a commitment to use restorative practices to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. The district has kept more students of color in school and out of local detention centers. The district’s restorative practices reinforce their commitment to equity.

Kathy Evans, an associate professor of education at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va., and Dorothy Vaandering, authors of The Little Book of Restorative Justice in Education, say, “Restorative justice in education is not a program; it’s a framework.”

Sheryl Wilson is director of the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, an affiliate of Bethel College, North Newton, Kan., and board president of the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice. KIPCOR oversees the work of the Restorative Justice Initiative, a group that trains and supports districts, schools, teachers and educational personnel in restorative practices.

Feature photo: Student teacher Alexa Weeks works with students. Photo courtesy of Eastern Mennonite University

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