Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Backlash: When poor execution makes "RJ" look bad...


Stemming from alarming reports regarding racial disparities in suspension rates, the DOE and the Obama administration has been exerting significant pressure to reduce these rates overall. Restorative Justice proponents have in turn been riding the wave of increased interest, touting the approach in schools as powerful and effective alternative to traditional discipline as well as an effective way of confronting bias. They're right. 



The problem for the RJ movement, however, is that it runs the risk of being sucked down and spit out, along with the rest of the many ill-conceived and poorly executed alternative discipline programs posing as restorative. Take New York City Schools, for example. From the sound of things, NYC schools are facing a major backlash to their suspension reduction campaign, not only from the pro-charter groups but even unions. Betsy McCaughey writes in the New York Post today:

The de Blasio administration is touting a dramatic decrease in school suspensions. That’s only because the unruly students are allowed to stay in the classroom, continuing to disrupt. Last week, at a United Federation of Teachers meeting, 81 percent of teachers said their students are losing learning opportunities because of the disorder and violence.

So instead of suspensions, what are schools doing to address the misbehavior in schools? According to McCaughey, "restorative justice." She writes:

Mayor Bill de Blasio has implemented the Obama administration’s policy of replacing suspensions with “restorative justice” — a kind of talk therapy — even for serious offenses such as insubordination, fighting, arson, assaults and marijuana possession.

We can assume that McCaughey isn't very familiar with what restorative justice actually is -her example of an Adlai Stevenson High School student being sent home with a "warning card" after being caught with seven bags of marijuana confirms that fact. But we can also assume that she's pretty representative of the general public's knowledge too. 

The result is a smear on the good name of Restorative Justice, an approach to discipline that is neither "soft" nor mere "talk therapy." In the words of leading expert Howard Zehr, "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." This means that "restorative disciplines does not seek to deny consequences for misbehavior," write Lorraine Amstutz and Judy Mullet, in their book Restorative Discipline for Schools. "Instead, it focuses on helping students understand the real harm done by their misbehavior, to take responsibility for the misbehavior, and to commit to positive change." 

Restorative discipline takes time, resources, and commitment. And the same factors that make traditional discipline difficult in our most troubled schools make restorative discipline difficult too. Proponents of restorative justice in schools would do well not to oversell, or sell out, the integrity of their process in an effort to be a panacea to suspension rate inequality. 



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