Restorative Justice & The School-to-Prison Pipeline

At its most distilled essence, the school-to-prison-pipeline (STPP) is a series of protocols, policies and measures that promote the push-out of young black and brown youth into the juvenile justice system. This happens through repeated high-confrontations, hostile interactions, student removals and suspensions. The varying levels of oppression young folks face between the hours they wake up and their first period class such as: poverty, law enforcement control, ableism, racism, sexism, classism, and in many cases, homophobia, Islamophobia and xenophobia are never taken into account.

Sounds heavy?

It is.

No young person looks forward to waking up and going to school with the hopes of being groomed for incarceration. In fact, what we understand as “bad behavior” is a quite often a manifestation of an unmet need. Still, we know from research and personal experience (as a teacher and social worker) that occurrences which begin as a simple violation of a school rule, can easily spiral into an encounter with the criminal justice system. Zero Tolerance policies support this line of action.

What is ZERO TOLERANCE?

According to the member-led advocacy organization, Teachers Unite -

Zero Tolerance policy is defined as the “punishing for any infraction of a rule regardless of accidental mistakes, ignorance or extenuating circumstances.”

Such policies fail our students by not offering them the chance to be accountable to and correct their mistakes. The appearance of such policies coincides with the passing of Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 (GFSA), which encouraged states to develop laws requiring maximum penalty statutes for incidents involving illegal substances and weapons. This is eerily similar to the mandatory minimum sentencing laws associated with the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

In theory, the GFSA was designed to serve as a deterrent to harmful student behavior. Subjective policies born from it, however, primarily impact groups from historically marginalized communities. Many of our young folk are not only part of these communities but also have intersecting identities in which school staff and safety agents are not always equipped to support. This promotes high incidences of confrontation and poor communication between youth and adult school-based stakeholders.

How do Zero Tolerance policies impact school climate?

Zero Tolerance policies not only affect students on the receiving end of disciplinary measures, they also impact overall community morale. They create a tense and negative school environment, void of healthy and supportive relationships — the antithesis of a restorative model.

But suspensions are working, right?

Studies show that students of color receive harsher punishments for engaging in the same conduct as white students. Racially isolated schools that primarily educate students of color are more likely to be among the nation’s “dropout factories” and also among those that utilize the harshest, most exclusionary means of discipline. — NAACP Legal Defense Fund

A study by Skiba et al. (2015) on the use of suspensions throughout Indiana found that, after controlling for race, poverty and other significant factors, one variable that stood out as the strongest predictor of both suspension rates and disparities in suspensions by race was a principal’s attitude toward the use of harsh discipline. This raises the question — what lens is being used to assess student behavior?

Further, there is no correlation between number of suspensions and decrease in unwanted behaviors; studies suggest the opposite. Students who are suspended from school are, in fact, more likely to engage in unwanted behaviors and display declines in academic achievement.

Additionally, there are more law enforcement present in urban schools than guidance counselors and social workers combined nationally. Students don’t need more law enforcement to create positive school climates. They need more supports.

What does the data say?

A public school student is suspended every second and a half, and a recent study found that 95 percent of out-of- school suspensions are for nonviolent, minor disruptions such as tardiness or disrespect. — Americanbar.org
Click chart to see enlarged version.

In New York City, suspensions issued for NYC Discipline Code Infraction “B21” or “being insubordinate” represented the second largest number of behavioral infractions — even outranking some offenses involving physical harm. Though “non-compliance” is typically a developmentally appropriate behavior for school-aged children, the majority of these occurrences result in suspension where alternative forms of conflict resolution could have been implemented. In the same vein, we find that high suspension rates for “discretionary violations” like B21, for example, are racially disproportionate.

Take the 44,636 suspensions issued during the 2014–2015 school year in New York City. Black students accounted for 53% of those but only represent 26% of the entire NYC Department of Education population. Their white counterparts however, comprise of 16% of the population and garnered only 7% of suspensions.

Students suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation are nearly 3 times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year. — ACLU

Once suspended from school, students are twice as likely to be suspended again and on the road to dropping out. Once a student drops out and/or is expelled, however, they are three times more likely to be incarcerated. Without the proper supports in place upon release, they face a higher chance of recidivism. Thus, the vicious cycle of oppression and trauma continues.

Similarly, from what we’ve seen as educators and social workers, that makes sense. Rarely does the suspension of a student include the necessary support and reflection process for a path towards change. Suspending a student without an adequate plan for intervention is counterproductive. Limiting a young person’s access to and participation in a school community doesn’t teach them how to be productive members within it. Miami-Dade County Public Schools has attempted to mitigate this by ending suspensions and creating more opportunities for academic, values-based and social emotional support in their newly created Success Centers.

How does RJ work to help to dismantle the school-to-prison-pipeline?

  1. Restorative Practices are largely conversation and relationship based, creating the space and opportunity for youth and adults to collaborate around resolving community issues and harms. By building strong community relationships, students are provided with the necessary support to correct unwanted behaviors and develop healthy relationship-building habits.
  2. Positioning youth as leaders and decision-makers can be helpful when looking for equitable solutions in the face of negative behavior affecting the school community. This can be done by engaging in restorative practices such as peer mediation, Fairness Committees, justice panels and peer councils.
  3. Integrating supportive personnel such as guidance counselors, social workers and campus aides in interventions such as harm & healing circles, parent conferences and discipline team meetings can help build an inclusive environment to help young folks feel accountable and supported when they make mistakes.
  4. Once students feel they are part of a community, they are more likely to feel invested in the reflective process of being accountable to their school community.

For us, dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline is a marathon, not a sprint. Long term sustainability in this fight is key. Our young folk are worth every bit of advocacy and courage we can gather to uplift them.