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Restorative Justice: Racial Bias in Expulsions & Suspensions Spur a New Look at School Discipline

Senn High School students Delvon Woods and Dewayne Thomas participated in a restorative justice training program at Alternatives, a youth center in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago.
WUIS/Illinois Issues

If a student happens to have been born black, he’s three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than his white classmates. That statistic comes from the U.S. Department of Education, and it’s often repeated by people who favor changing the way students are disciplined. But as with all averages, it obscures the rough edges that become apparent only when looking more closely at the numbers, and Illinois has some of the roughest edges around.

The Chicago Public Schools report “suspensions per 100 students,” which allows comparisons among schools of varying sizes. It also accounts for the fact that Latinos and African-American students vastly outnumber those in every other demographic. Using this metric, disparities in discipline are even starker: In the 2012-2013 school year, white students were suspended at a rate of 5 per 100; black students at a rate of 32 per 100. In Chicago’s more “challenging” schools, the numbers strain comprehension: Students at Fenger High School, on the far south side, received out-of-school suspensions at a rate of 123 per 100; at Orr High School, on the west side, that figure was 294 per 100 students. Contrast that with the elite Walter Payton High School: 1.4 suspensions per 100 students.

The federal government has taken notice of such statistics, and in January, the Justice Department, in conjunction with the Department of Education, published a set of “Guiding Principles” for improving school climate. “The need to rethink and redesign school discipline practices is long overdue,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. “Too many schools resort too quickly to exclusionary discipline, even for minor misbehaviors.”

Of course, as with many of society’s most seemingly intractable problems, some people have been rethinking it for years. Advocates of restorative justice say it can have a “magical” effect on school discipline. After years of implementing the program just here and there, they say the new federal guidelines represent a turning point, and see a future in which more and more schools — both challenged and not — make restorative practices a part of everyday life.

On a midsummer’s Thursday afternoon, about two dozen high school students gather at Alternatives, a youth center in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, to hear from their peers about restorative justice. The session is led by another group of students who’ve just completed two weeks of training in restorative practices. This fall, they’ll return to nearby high schools, working with peers trying to move their Chicago public schools beyond a punitive mode of discipline.

Delvon Woods, a junior at Senn High School, which has 30 suspensions per 100 students, first came to restorative justice as a client. He was having an argument with a girl — “it wasn’t really her business, but she had got into it, so we both got sent down to the office.” Instead of a two-day suspension, they went to a restorative justice circle. “We talked about how we were both in the wrong. We became friends. We’re friends to this day,” Woods says. It’s a similar story for his classmate Dewayne Thomas: “I’m not a troublemaker, but I wasn’t necessarily wearing the school uniform. We talked about it. It solved it pretty well — I liked it, so I’m here.”

The peace circle is at the heart of restorative practice. It is, at first glance, a little weird. At Alternatives, the students and adult guests are broken up into groups and sent to a series of smaller rooms. As you enter, you see a dozen chairs circled around a large piece of fabric. At the center are an unlit candle and several trinkets — a shell, rocks, a squeezy foam globe. “This is some voodoo-type stuff,” one of the kids says, a common first impression. The objects are “talking pieces.” When you’re holding one, you get to talk. As long as you stay on topic, you can talk as long as you like. This is one of the fundamental rules of the peace circle.

Not all circles are called to deal with disciplinary problems. Sometimes it’s just meant to help people get to know each other and talk in a safe space, and that’s the form this one takes. A student circle-keeper leads a pair of ice-breakers, then asks everyone to write one word describing how they want fellow circle people to be: open, brave, kind, present. The specifics of what’s said in circle ought to remain in circle. Suffice it to say many of the students expressed frustration with zero-tolerance policies at their schools. Some described teachers who seem to discriminate on the basis of race or academic performance. None of the world’s problems were solved, but a group of young people got to share ideas on topics about which they’re not usually asked.

In some schools, that alone would represent a significant improvement, especially between staff and students. “For you to learn from somebody, you have to have a relationship, truly, and there’s got to be a lot of trust,” says Jacob Echeverri, an Alternatives intern who’s a senior at Lake View High School, which has 25 suspensions per 100 students. “Because if I have a teacher, and I don’t like them and they don’t like me, and we have no interest in trying to make a true friendship and build trust and a good relationship, then I’m not going to learn much from you.” He says from what he’s seen at Lake View, restorative justice has made the biggest difference in resolving conflicts between students and teachers. He describes the effect as “magical,” a word that came up again and again in conversations about restorative justice.

“I always hesitate and kind of stammer around before I say this, but … it’s almost like there’s magic in a circle,” says Priss Parmenter, who helped implement restorative justice at Mount Carmel High School in southeastern Illinois. “I think it’s because no one is at the center or the head. Everybody is equal. When you use a talking piece, everybody has an opportunity to talk, giving everybody else an opportunity to listen. To really listen. And it’s safe because you create it. You make it a safe place.”

Advocates of restorative justice say it opens lines of communication between people who might otherwise distrust each other, like students, teachers and police officers.
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
WUIS/Illinois Issues
Advocates of restorative justice say it opens lines of communication between people who might otherwise distrust each other, like students, teachers and police officers.

It’s not always easy to get people to buy into restorative justice. Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Kathy Bankhead, former head of the juvenile division and a longtime proponent of restorative justice, says she hears concerns that it lets kids off easy: “slaps on the wrist,” “you need to send a message.” But she points to the practices of elite schools, where the focus is on teaching children lessons, not sending messages. “They’re trying not to destroy them; they’re trying to help them continue on their path to success because it helps the school. Especially if you go to a private school or you go to a school that’s well-heeled or has a great reputation, it cannot maintain that reputation if kids are getting suspended, expelled, arrested, et cetera.”

Indeed, state Rep. Dennis Reboletti, a Republican from Elmhurst and minority spokesman on the House Restorative Justice Committee, says peer juries are being used in DuPage County. “I think that’s more of a trend we’re going to see, and I think it makes more sense than to arrest everybody,” he says. “But at the same time, there are going to be some offenses that obviously the system is going to need to intervene. You’re going to have higher level offenses: drug-dealing, crimes of violence, anything with firearms.” Nevertheless, Reboletti says nonjudicial interventions can be more effective for the victim, the offender, and the system overall.

Sitting in a circle, which for disciplinary matters often takes the form of a peer jury, students must face their classmates and the person they’ve harmed. They talk about what happened, and the students have an opportunity to take responsibility for what they’ve done. Bankhead says this is key, and quite different from the traditional model of holding someone accountable. “When we take responsibility, we take ownership of our behavior, and we’re engaged in whatever the solutions are, so that we’re more likely to stick to that solution,” Bankhead says. For the child who knocked a classmate’s books to the floor, it’s the difference between a stilted, forced apology and deciding on his own that it would be appropriate to carry the victim’s books for the rest of the day.

Even when policymakers and school administrators come around to the restorative process, it can be challenging to get teachers on board. As director of training and program development at Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice, Sally Wolf says she’s heard from educators who say the majority of their students want to learn, with just two or three causing most of the problems. “I just want them out so I can teach,” they tell her. “That’s so understandable. It really is understandable,” Wolf says. “The problem is that those kids who aren’t in school are either going to end up in the Department of Corrections someday, or on the welfare rolls, because they haven’t gotten their education.”

Mariame Kaba, an organizer with Project NIA in Chicago, draws an even more direct line from zero-tolerance discipline back to education policies aimed at teacher accountability: test prep, No Child Left Behind, teachers in fear of losing their jobs, schools closing altogether. “The same ideas that you see in individual schools where they’re super harsh on young people, were also actually replicated by the larger systems that became super-harsh on the administrators and the teachers. It’s no wonder in some cases, and in some schools, that that trickled down to becoming incredibly draconian on the students,” Kaba says. “You get kicked, you kick the next person, who kicks the next person, who kicks the dog.”

Of course, the current data craze isn’t going away. One of the challenges for restorative justice advocates is that there’s no entry for “stronger relationships” or “fights prevented” on school report cards. In some ways, the absence of bad outcomes will be the best barometer of whether restorative justice succeeds. To that end, Kaba and others have been working to pry better data out of the schools. This February, CPS published suspension and expulsion data online, broken down by race, gender, special-education status, and school. “This is the first time that ever has happened. And that took years of arguments and fights,” Kaba says.Senate Bill 2793, still awaiting action by the governor at press time, would require reporting of that information statewide.

Optimists in the restorative set — that seems to be a common trait — say the idea is taking off in a way they’ve not seen before. “Right now is a perfect storm in terms of a variety of different people, in different locations throughout the city, and throughout the state and the nation, that are really pushing to get the word out about the importance of restorative practices and other social-emotional tools,” says Robert Spicer, who went from dean to “culture and climate specialist” at Fenger High School in Chicago. He says the use of restorative justice at the school arose from tragedy: the 2009 beating death of Fenger student Derrion Albert, captured on cell phone video and broadcast around the world. “The adults in the school were willing to try just about anything that would bring back the equilibrium that we so desired and so needed,” Spicer says.

It doesn’t always take a tragedy to awaken educators to restorative possibilities. Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice advocates once traveled the state, pitching the idea to schools. Since the federal guidelines came out, districts are calling them. Chicago has had a restorative justice option for a couple of years, at least on paper. Now the question is one of resources — money and time.

“Restorative justice work is actually slow work,” Kaba says. “What’s happened in schools with accountability movements — people want direct, immediate changes. And you need to take time with restorative justice. Because at the base of what restorative justice is about is transforming relationships.”

Fenger and Spicer were included in CNN’s documentary seriesChicagoland. But even being held up as a model for change hasn’t been enough to spare the school from the financial pressures that have affected every level of government in Illinois. “I was recently laid off due to budget cuts, and was very saddened by that because of the importance of the work of restorative justice,” Spicer says. “But I feel that we’ve been able — and when I say ‘we’ I mean (Principal) Elizabeth Dozier and myself and the team that’s there — have been able to really build an ecosystem of care.”

As with many peace movements, the question facing restorative justice — at Fenger and elsewhere — is whether the message can thrive without the resources to invest in a messenger.

Illinois Issues, September 2014

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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