In the last couple of years, I’ve been hearing more and more about “restorative justice” as an alternative philosophy to punitive discipline in schools. I have to do more of my own research on the topic, especially since a lot of folks speak the term without really having a firm grasp of the concept.
A few things. Like a lot of concepts or models, there are likely numerous different ways to implement restorative justice, so choosing an appropriate model or package will be important. Additionally, not going about this in a haphazard way will be essential for restorative models to function properly. There are numerous new structures that have to be put in place, new committees and/or student groups, and a new vocabulary through which teachers need to speak about matters of behavior in the schools.
Another matter is suspicion. Teachers should be rightly skeptical when any new program comes along and is therefore mandated. Everything comes with a mandate it seems. Nevertheless, there is an appreciable effort to keep suspension numbers down, or which I agree. Keeping suspension numbers down, however, cannot happen in isolation. It must be replaced with something. Replacing with restorative justice sounds great, but teachers and school leaders need to make sure that these efforts are followed through. Simply keeping suspension numbers down, or not suspending at all, is never important unless some other system is put in place. All it does is tell students, and teachers, that consequences do not exist.
Finally, what happens in non-diverse schools? Part of restorative justice is identifying unjust patterns in discipline. Who gets suspended most often? In relatively diverse schools, we read that students of color are most likely suspended. What about schools that are 100% students of color? Even in those schools, there must still be work to identify unjust patterns of discipline or suspension. Could it be students with special needs, or boys, perhaps?
I do, however, have some concern that there is, yet again, emphasis on the plight of “boys,” and now even boys of color. Boys are always in crisis. Boys have been in crisis since, hell, the 19th century. Just look up “boys crisis.” Yet, I think we should also make sure that we have the same concern for girls, and girls of color. Girls and young women are also populating our prisons, and I see plenty of girls get suspended for fighting, without adequate support for their needs. Justice programs must also include the same concern for girls and young women.