Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend a two-day conference entitled, “Exposing Structural Racism from Within: The Power of Restorative Justice,” sponsored by the Henderson Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley. Conferences, especially those in an academic environment, usually tend to focus only on the problems, however this time I left with an overwhelmed, yet hopeful, mind. While there was plenty of theoretical discourse on how, and if, restorative justice as a model has the power to dismantle institutional and historical racism within the juvenile and criminal justice systems, there was also a refreshing amount of insight into the practical application of restorative justice, particularly in our schools.
Why begin in the schools?
A common thread throughout the conference was the focus on the school environment, as it is the entry point into the juvenile justice system, for many youth. Our nation’s crime rate has dropped to a rate as low as it was in the early 1970s and school violence rates have been dropping since the 1990’s. However, despite this “crime plunge,” a youth is now more at-risk of being arrested at school than on the street. Panelists stressed that due to over-policing in minority communities, which has resulted in strict zero tolerance laws at school and curfew laws in the streets, the “arrest, prosecute, incarcerate” pattern has been able to continue. Youth experiencing early challenges at school has a significant relationship to their risk for later involvement in the juvenile justice system, for example, 75% of youth in California prisons are high school drop outs. Representatives from Chicago and Denver shared their stories of integrating restorative justice practices in schools to halt the school-to-prison pipeline.
In Chicago, the High Hopes Coalition removed the practice of zero tolerance from the school board policy and replaced it with restorative justice practices. Zero tolerance had led to disproportionate rates of arrests and suspensions among youth of color. Removing youth from the classroom is a punitive approach whereas the restorative approach takes on the origins of the word “discipline” which literally means “to teach.” Rather than further alienating youth from their learning environment, this new approach incorporates faculty, school police officers, students, and their parents to heal those broken relationships. As a result of the new policy, Chicago Public Schools implemented a peer jury program for in school incidents, victim/offender conferencing, and the parents operate two Peace Centers in the district.
In Denver, organizers at Padres & Jovenes Unidos successfully campaigned, reforming an historic new discipline policy in Denver Public Schools, similarly aimed to reduce disproportionate minority contact and to keep students in school. They were able to integrate restorative practices in school by engaging school police officers and administrators.
In these cases, restorative justice has helped to decriminalize common youth misconduct in schools by having the parties involved meet face to face. In addition, previous implementation of these practices in other states has proven to significantly reduce school suspensions rates and decrease teacher attrition. Conflict and acting-out in the classroom often stems from broken relationships or lack of relationship between the students and their teachers or peers. By approaching conflict from a relational standpoint relationships are not only restored, but youth are diverted away from our already bloated juvenile justice system.
The post above is reprinted with permission from the blog of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a criminal justice nonprofit headquartered in San Francisco, CA.
Emily Luhrs is the Case Specialist for the Sentencing Service Program at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, CA. She has a Masters in Public Administration from Clark University. Her expertise is in juvenile justice community-based services and state youth correctional facilities.