Stopping the Pipeline: Restorative Justice in Urban Schools

Anita WadhwaOne month ago a coalition of researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and lawyers convened in Washington, D.C., at a conference entitled, "Civil Rights in School Discipline: Addressing Disparities to Ensure Educational Opportunity," cosponsored by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education.

Members of the Obama administration, including US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder, announced that school districts which disproportionately suspend and expel students of color would be under scrutiny, regardless of whether or not there was an intent to discriminate against students.

Their call comes at a crucial time when school districts across the country are reforming discipline codes to include alternatives to suspension and expulsion, practices which have increasingly become the de facto means of addressing disciplinary issues. Since 1973, the number of students suspended annually has more than doubled to 3.3 million students, according to a 2009 report from Dignity in Schools. Statistics reveal that exclusionary disciplinary practices are strongly linked to school dropout rates; a University of Virginia study reports that "the frequent use of suspension as a disciplinary practice is predictive of higher dropout rates for both white and black students, and is not explained by other school demographics or by student attitudes that are associated with breaking school rules"

The reliance on zero tolerance might be understandable if the policy were found to successfully curb or improve behaviors such as truancy, fighting, and verbal disrespect — behaviors that administrators have reported as the most prevalent and worrisome in their day-to-day school experiences. However, a substantial body of literature is pointing to the failure of zero tolerance to create safer schools or improve student behavior. Zero tolerance has been under much scrutiny after numerous documented cases of students who have been suspended or expelled for anything from sharing “organic lemon drops” with fellow elementary school students to flashing a toy gun in class.

The statistics are particularly alarming given that students who are suspended have an increased likelihood of being expelled, dropping out of school, and ending up in the criminal justice system, a phenomenon that has been dubbed "the school to prison pipeline." Students of color are overwhelmingly affected by the pipeline, and are disproportionately suspended nationwide for the same behaviors displayed by their white counterparts. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007 49 percent of African-American boys in grades 6 through 12 reported being suspended at least once in their lives, as compared to 21 percent of white boys and 31percent of Hispanic boys.

Yet, African-American students comprise only 17 percent of the public school population, while white students and Latino students represent 56 percent and 21 percent, respectively, according to NCES.

Reasons for racial disproportionality in school discipline often fall into two hypotheses: the first states that students of color act out more than whites and therefore are suspended at higher rates. However, quantitative studies have disproven this theory, showing that student behavior makes a "weak contribution" to explaining discrepant suspension rates of blacks and whites. The second theory is that discrepant suspension rates result from individual and institutional bias against students of color,  a hypothesis which has been corroborated in qualitative and quantitative studies. Consequently, how teachers and administrators handle disciplinary events in schools has important ramifications for the trajectory of students' lives outside of school.

In order to disrupt the flow of students out of schools, and often into the criminal justice system, many school districts are adopting restorative justice programs, which seek to restore relationships that have been harmed because of a behavioral infraction. Restorative justice is both a philosophy and practice in which infractions against the state (or a school) are reframed as harms against a community. Restorative justice is often described as contrasting with Western, retributive notions of justice in which punishment is of prime importance. In restorative justice, healing harm is of prime importance; those who have been harmed sit face-to-face with those who have harmed them and say how they were impacted. Community members also sit in on the conversation to support both the responsible and harmed parties. The responsible party and the harmed party are “restored” as equal members of the community after the responsible party atones in some way.

One practice being implemented in schools using restorative justice is peacemaking circles. In these circles, the responsible parties, the harmed parties, and other members of the community engage in a conversation by sitting in a circle. The dialogue is embedded with rituals based on Native American practices, such as having a keeper and a talking piece. Rather than impose rules, the keeper (who acts as a facilitator) reminds everyone to “keep” to the agreements they have jointly made, such as promising to be truthful, or only speaking when they have the talking piece. The talking piece-which can be any small object, such as a stone or a shell, is passed to the left, in the direction of the sun. The circle employs three core principles of restorative justice: identify the harm, ask community members to say how they were impacted by the harm, and then come up with concrete ways for the responsible party to repair the harm. Schools that use circles have experienced fewer suspensions, a feeling of safety on the part of harmed parties, closer relationships between participants, and a feeling of acceptance on the part of responsible parties.

Implementing circle practices in schools is a time-consuming process, and an imperfect one. In one of the schools where I have done research, a student who punched a hole in the wall agreed to work with the custodial staff to repair it. He was also a dancer, and agreed to start a “crumping” club to give back to the community. I believe the young man was sincere in making the agreement, but no one held him accountable for his actions once the circle was finished. There was not enough staff at the school to follow-up on agreements. However, the young man seemed sincere in the circle. He addressed deep anger issues that he had, and his peers and several adults at the school, including myself, were able to listen, support him, and offer advice on how to deal with his anger in the future. In this case, it is hard to quantify the success of restorative justice. There is no way to know how many more holes he could have made on school walls had he not participated in the circle.

But after having sat in 55 circles during two years of research, I have seen that more often than not, students and teachers are able to come to a genuine understanding of how to move forward after a conflict. Even if students continued to act out after a circle, it was clear that suspension would not have changed the behavior — often teachers and administrators had to continue to check in with students, and understood that circles were not a "one-shot" process where problems could be quickly resolved. Over the course of my research, I witnessed that circles led to students being suspended for fewer days. Circles built a sense of community among teachers and students. Most students became better listeners and became vulnerable enough to share their lives in circle; what emerged was that behind every student behavior was an unmet need which stemmed from conditions such as hunger, problems at home, or traumas related to neighborhood violence. When students faced conflicts with each other, several would reach out to teachers to request a circle to prevent further escalation.

The potential for restorative justice to transform school communities is slowly emerging. Such a paradigm shift may take years. But the price of sending our children home for their transgressions is well documented — students who have one suspension in eighth-grade have a higher likelihood of dropping out of school. Moreover, sending students home is a quick fix which ignores the roots of student behavior. For many students, suspension is not a deterrent to acting out. More often than not, being kicked out of school does not actually keep students accountable for their actions, or make them reflect on their behaviors.

Adults often claim that education is the means by which students can progress in our culture economically, socially, and politically. But that is only true if our students are actually inschool, and if schools are actually sites of liberation, where teachers and administrators can teach our children that there are other ways of addressing harm than excluding people from the community.


Anita Wadhwa is a doctoral student at Harvard University./p>



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  • Amstutz, L., & Mullet, J. (2005). The little book of restorative discipline for schools: Teaching responsibility, creating caring climates. PA: Good Books.

  • APA Zero Tolerance Task Force. (2006). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review   and recommendations. Washington, DC.

  • Casella, R. (June 2003). Zero tolerance policy in schools: Rationale, consequences, and alternatives. Teachers College Record, 105(5), 872-892.

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