Can Restorative Justice Break the School-to- Prison Pipeline?

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Jesus Ibn El was teased incessantly as a youngster. He now works at Berkley's Resolution Center. Photo by Spencer Whitney/SF Chronicle

Jesus Ibn El was teased incessantly as a youngster. He now works at Berkley’s Resolution Center. Photo by Spencer Whitney/SF Chronicle

Last September, Berkeley (CA) Tech Academy Principal Sheila Quintana had no choice but to suspend 10 students after an off-campus brawl was caught on video by neighborhood residents.

Another fight among students erupted three days later, leading to three more suspensions.

Quintana knew there had to be a better way to deal with the disciplinary process than to shut the students out of school, which can send them into a cycle of futility: falling behind in class and ultimately dropping out with scarce employment opportunities, elevating the risk of a life of crime and incarceration.

There is a better way.

It’s a concept known as restorative justice, in which perpetrators of minor to moderate offenses are brought into an intensive program in which they are led to confront the underlying causes and consequences of their actions.

They are forced to meet with their victims in sessions known as “the circle” as part of the process of taking responsibility for their actions and repairing the harm they caused.

Restorative justice was already being used in Berkeley schools, but those September suspensions prompted Quintana to intensify the academy’s program, identifying conflicts before they turn violent.

One example involved name calling and cyber-bullying on social media. The three young women involved were brought in for a 90-minute session at a teacher’s request. The harassment stopped.

“The restorative justice practices at our school allowed our students to have dignity and options when it comes to behaviors that don’t serve them,” Quintana said. “It has really had an impact on our statistics … our goal is to make sure the students are in school for instruction.”

It’s working.

Berkeley Tech has had just one suspension and no expulsions since September. The Oakland Unified School District’s $2.3 million “Restorative Justice Initiative” has been credited with helping to reduce the suspensions of African American students by 40 percent in its first year.

Programs that can keep young people on track before they become hopelessly mired in the criminal justice system are essential in a state that is making a worthy and long overdue effort to reduce its prison population.

Myriad studies have shown that students of color, especially African Americans, are far more likely to be suspended from school — which helps explain their disproportionate representation in prisons. And the racial profiling begins early. A 2014 U.S. Department of Education study found that African Americans accounted for 18 percent of preschoolers in the U.S., but 42 percent of all suspensions.

sheila quintana RJ

Berkeley Tech Academy Principal Sheila Quintana established a restorative justice program at the school that has had promising results. Photo by Spencer Whitney/SF Chronicle

The results in the pioneering Bay Area schools have led state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, to propose SB463, a measure to encourage local districts to train school personnel in restorative justice practices to break cycles of violence.

“School psychologists, social workers, restorative justice practitioners and mental health counselors play a critical role in implementing school-based educationally related counseling services and positive behavior systems and supports that create and reinforce positive school cultures of achievement for all students,” said Hancock.

“SB463 will ensure that our educators are trained by these qualified professionals so that all of our students can receive the support they need to thrive in school.”

The principle of restorative justice — of engagement over punishment as a first resort — is a sharp departure from the “zero tolerance” policies that became so prevalent in the 1990s. The problem with the latter is that it failed to distinguish between serious and minor misbehavior; a student could be suspended for using profanity or refusing a class assignment as readily as for a violent act.

Zero tolerance was accompanied by an escalated police presence in school hallways, creating an us-vs.-them dynamic that inevitably resulted in more suspensions and arrests.

Among the keys to making a restorative justice program work: eliminating “willful defiance” as cause for suspension. A 2014 California law prohibits the expulsion of K-12 students or suspension of K-3 students for willful defiance. Instead, the goal is to channel those defiant students into a frank, and often emotional, dialogue about their interactions with authority or other students.

“Punishment doesn’t work,” said Camisha Fatimah Gentry, who worked as a Restorative Justice for Oakland youth school coordinator. “People return to classrooms or prison after being suspended/arrested as if nothing happened and the situation is never really addressed. It’s much harder to sit in a circle and build your empathy for people.”

Gentry worked at West Oakland’s now-closed Cole Middle School where the program was able to reduce the rate of suspensions by more than 75 percent. She says people are defensive when they first enter the circle, especially students who aren’t used to facing the consequences of their actions.

“The reality is it takes time and dedication to build that initial trust between the students, teachers and administration,” said Gentry. “Following up is key for both the victim and offender. It can’t be a lopsided process. Many students are reacting rather than responding to violence.”

Despite the highly promising results of restorative justice, its growth has been been slow because of concerns about cost and skepticism about its effectiveness from education and corrections authorities who came of age in systems that saw traditional disciplinary practices as essential to maintaining orderly classrooms for the students who are there to learn and abide by the rules.

“It’s hard to get some school districts from punitive practices,” Dwanna Nicole, senior policy advocate for Advancement Project, a Washington-based nonprofit group dedicated to racial justice issues.

“If you don’t implement the restorative justice practices correctly, then it won’t work. Some people use that as an excuse to give up. It’s much easier to do that than implementation.”

Nicole said too many districts are left with a choice between more police officers on campus or restorative justice — and, in many instances, they choose the latter.

Hancock’s SB463, which cleared the California State Senate on a 29-11 vote last month, would be a good start in prodding local districts to choose the restorative justice option. The governor’s May budget revision provided $10 million to help support the effort.

The Assembly must now move quickly to advance SB463 to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.

The short-term cost of restorative justice is more than offset by the long-term savings of steering a young person away from a path to prison, which costs the state an average of more than $62,000 a year for incarceration in addition to the fiscal and emotional toll on victims, as well as the significant opportunity costs when an individual fails to become a productive member of society.

California’s prison population, which peaked at 163,000 in 2006, is less than 130,000 today. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 2011 that overcrowding in California’s prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, in part because of inadequate inmate access to health care.

The trend away from mass incarceration is wise as a matter of both fiscal prudence and basic humanity. State voters helped advance the cause in 2014 with the passage of Proposition 47, which lowered the penalties for crimes such as car theft, forgery and small-time drug sales. That measure has been blamed by some law-enforcement leaders for an uptick in lower-level property crimes, though evidence of a correlation is highly suspect at this point.

One point of data on which all can agree: a young person who stays in school and out of the juvenile justice system is far less likely to become an adult offender. Restorative justice is one very practical way to keep students on the right track. It’s in society’s interest to give this noble, pragmatic, life-affirming effort the support it deserves

How Restorative Justice Changed One Life

Jesus Ibn El has had to deal with school discipline his entire life. From the time he was suspended at 10 while attending Lowell Middle School in West Oakland, punishment has played a major role in his education experience.

El remembers a particular situation that led to his suspension when a teacher kept referring to him as “Baby Jesus,” a nickname that he hated and other students teased him with. When he asked the teacher to stop calling him the despised name in class, the teacher continued.

That’s when El got angry and challenged the teacher. The situation escalated to the point where El threw a textbook at the teacher. He was sent out of his class and summarily suspended.

“I was wrong to react that way, but I believe the situation could have been avoided had there been more compassion on both sides,” El said. “At the time, there was no idea of restorative justice at the school and everything was more based on a zero tolerance approach.”

With some guidance from his mentor, Sadiki Fuller, El was able to channel his energy into his talents and passion for poetry, dancing and acrobatic dunking. This transition led El to become a member of the group Showtime Dunk and the Flying Dubs, an acrobatic slam-dunking team with the Golden State Warriors where he was able to travel the world and perform.

Jesus Ibn El, who helps in conflict resolution, also performs acrobatic dunking at Warriors games. Photo by Spencer Whitney/SF Chronicle

Jesus Ibn El, who helps in conflict resolution, also performs acrobatic dunking at Warriors games. Photo by Spencer Whitney/SF Chronicle

After realizing the impact he could have mentoring and teaching youth, El decided to focus on transformative work as a director of the nonprofit, Oakland-based program High Altitude Pro, which promotes leadership and life skills through gymnastics and acrobatic dunking.

El now works part-time for the Seeds Community Resolution Center, a nonprofit community-based organization that provides mediation, facilitation and restorative justice training to organizations and schools in the Bay Area.

Legislation PENDING in California

SB463 author: Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley.

What it would do: Require training for employees to implement restorative justice workshops, developing best practices and evaluation tools to measure the effectiveness of these programs.

Who would oversee: California Department of Education.

Cost: The bill is dependent on one-time funding from the Budget Act of 2015. The Budget Act of 2015 Funding costs would be extended to Jan. 1, 2019.

Status: Cleared state Senate on a 29-11 vote on June 3. Pending in Assembly.

Spencer Whitney is Associate Editorial Editor at  The San Francisco Chronicle and a 2015-2016 John Jay/Solutions Journalism Network Violence Reporting Fellow. The above, written as part of his fellowship project, combines the original and a sidebar published earlier this month. The full story is available HERE, along with a special video created for the project. Spencer welcomes readers’ comments.

3 thoughts on “Can Restorative Justice Break the School-to- Prison Pipeline?

  1. Great article – only thing I would caution so that the goal of doing RJ with fidelity is held is to consider this statement, “They are forced to meet with their victims in sessions known as “the circle” as part of the process of taking responsibility for their actions and repairing the harm they caused.” No one is forced in a restorative practice, they are asked, encouraged, strongly encouraged with information about the consequences, they are taught, they are given space and a listening ear so they can understand their own actions and wrongdoing and how they hurt someone else. They are given time to make amends to themselves about their choice to harm. No one is forced in a restorative practice.
    Voluntariness is a very important principle in this process. If they choose not to participate they will have to then go through the conventional process in place. If we really had the time for our youth, we will try and try again to help them to understand how to correct what they did wrong.
    It is of course confusing for our youth given that our world does not operate using the values that round Restorative Justice.

    • Wonderful to see articles of this nature, but I would have too agree with Rita, as a long term practitioner of Restorative Practice, it is less about ‘force’, and more about the conversation and relationship (trust) you are able to built with perpetrators – and indeed allowing them to achieve a shared understanding of the impact of their behaviour on others. So-called ‘circles’ or restorative conferences are certainly a tough environment, simply because offenders are encouraged within an environment of respect and support, to own there behaviour – but they are certainly not forced. The difficulty for most offenders is that they often come from forceful or retributive experiences where negative emotions have been maximised. The restorative model, or Restorative Practice is essentially about maximising opportunities for positive emotions, which in turn allows a process of reparation and reintegration to begin. Sadly – this is something that is foreign to the criminal justice system.

  2. Thank you Ms. Alfred for pointing out the mistakes in this article that are so often made by people when they speak of RJ. As a oractitioner, I spend a lot of time defending and correcting my people about what restorative justice practices really is. I’m glad you were able to write the author almost immediately.

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