Keeping Kids in Schools: Restorative Justice, Punitive Discipline, and the School to Prison Pipeline

Article excerpt


Although the use of restorative justice in schools is hardly new globally, the emergence of school-based restorative justice in the United States as an educational practice to address the far-reaching negative impacts of punitive discipline policies is a more recent phenomenon. School-based restorative justice programs in the United States have grown exponentially in the last five years. Within the school context, restorative justice is broadly defined as an approach to discipline that engages all parties in a balanced practice that brings together all people impacted by an issue or behavior.1 It allows students, teachers, families, schools, and communities to resolve conflict, promote academic achievement, and address school safety. Restorative justice practice in schools is often seen as building on existing relationships and complementary with other non-discipline practices, such as peer mediation or youth courts.

To understand the powerful impact of school-based restorative justice practice, one must consider the far-reaching negative impacts of zero tolerance and other punitive discipline measures.2 It has been consistently documented that punitive school discipline policies not only deprive students of educational opportunities, but fail to make schools safer places.' The presence of zero tolerance and punitive discipline policies within schools also have negative effects on the offending student, by increasing the likelihood of future disciplinary problems, and ultimately increasing contact with the juvenile justice system.4 For example, in its 2010 report, Test, Punish & Push Out: How "Zero Tolerance" and High Stakes Testing Funnel Youth Into the School-Prison-Pipeline, The Advancement Project documented that punitive discipline policies have led to a tripling of the national prison population from 1987 to 2007. 5 Additionally, in many school districts across the United States, children are more likely to be arrested at school than they were a generation ago,6 and the number of students suspended from school each year has nearly doubled from 1.7 million in 1974 to 3.1 million in 2000.7 In 2006, one in every fourteen students was suspended at least once during the academic year.8 In the same year, according to the Legal Defense Fund, African- American students representing only 17.1 percent of public school students "accounted for 37.4 percent of total suspensions and 37.9 percent of total expulsions nationwide."9 Between the 2002-2003 and 2007-2008 school years, the number of suspensions in New York City schools more than doubled, rising from 31,880 to 72,518, respectively.10 More than one in five (22%) of the students suspended during the 2007-2008 school year in New York City had a superintendent's suspension.11

The first documented use of restorative justice in schools began in the early 1990s with initiatives in Australia.'2 Since this time, school based restorative justice programs have been studied most extensively internationally,13 but more scholars have begun preliminary analysis of United States based programs.14 School-based restorative justice practice is a whole-school approach focused on inclusion in the school community, rather than exclusion, to address issues of student discipline,15 student performance,16 school safety,17 student dropout,18 and the school to prison pipeline19 without a disproportionate reliance on suspensions and expulsions. As restorative justice models have evolved within schools, it is clear they contribute to the aims of education by emphasizing accountability, restitution, and restoration of a community. Similar to restorative justice programs in general,20 school-based restorative justice practices use varying models of conferences, mediations, and circles to repair the relationships between students, teachers, administrators, and the school community.21 Thus, the primary function of restorative practice is to reintegrate the student into the school community, rather than removing the student and increasing the potential for separation, resentment, and recidivism. …