Restorative Justice: Reviewing the Evidence (by Ken Johnson)

BTSpReportIn 2012, Judge Steven C. Teske, a juvenile court judge for Clayton County, went before a Georgia Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights to testify about law enforcement efforts in the school system. According to Judge Teske, there were only 49 students referred to juvenile court the year before police were placed in the schools. Just eight years later, the judge noted a 2,757% increase as that number skyrocketed to over 1,400 students being sent to court each year. The judge somberly noted how the prosecutor attentions have diverged  from “the more difficult evidentiary and ‘scary’ cases – burglary, robberies, car thefts, aggravated assaults with weapons” to “ prosecuting kids that are not ‘scary,’ but made an adult mad.”

KJohnsonphotoA Case in Point

This was evidenced just recently in November of 2014 when Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an autistic sixth grader in Virginia, was arrested not once but twice with the judge even ordering an officer to show Kayleb a jail cell so that he could see where he was headed. What was his offense? What terror was this autistic child perpetrating? According to a Public Radio International report, his first offense was a disorderly conduct charge for knocking over a trash can. A few weeks later, a principal called in the same officer to arrest the child when he refused to go to the end of the line of children exiting the class. Reports say the cop grabbed Kayleb around the chest, threw him to the ground, and handcuffed him.

This sounds horrible. But, would your opinion change if you knew Kayleb was Black? In a recent Stanford research study, “Two Strikes: Race and the Disciplining of Young Students,” Professor Jennifer Eberhardt and graduate student Jason Okonofua found evidence to support race matters significantly when talking about patterns of willful defiance. In their research, the two showed teachers discipline files of various children. When a racial-invoking name such as “DeShawn” vs “Greg” was used, perceptions changed drastically with teachers expressing feelings how Black students should be disciplined more severely than White students after only two infractions – many of which expressing a feeling that the Black students should be suspended.

Okonofua and Eberhardt correlated their findings with other social relationships such as police and civilian, employer and employee, prison guard and prisoner, etc. The same race-based escalation effect is seen when all evidence but race is the same. Their suggestion is to use intervention strategies with teacher training so they will view behavior as something malleable rather than one of fixed disposition.

Effects on Relationships

According to Edward W. Morris, a sociologist at the University of Kentucky, “Schools should really be about relationships.” In a joint research study of more than 17,000 students by researchers at both Indiana University and the University of Kentucky, students are mentally and emotionally harmed when they see their peers being suspended. In “Suspending Progress: Collateral Consequences of Exclusionary Punishment in Schools,” it was noted how lower math and reading scores were found in schools with high rates of suspensions.

It’s for this reason that California became the first state in the nation to ban suspensions of any kind for children in Grades K-3 as well as a ban on any and all expulsions for students charged with willful defiance. In the Pasadena Unified School District, they went a step farther to extend AB420 to ban any and all willful defiance suspensions for children in Grades K-12. Public Counsel’s Ruth Cusick noted, “It’s not about taking something away from our teachers or administrators but actually being honest together about what works and what’s going to increase your attendance and increase academic achievement in schools.”

Restorative Justice

KJohnsonbookSo, what works if status quo is failing so badly? According to many school districts, Restorative Justice is one promising answer.

Thanks to Restorative Justice practices, the state of California now reports suspensions are down by over 50,000 students. The Oakland Unified School District reports, since establishing some RJ sites, a significant difference between schools. In particular, RJ sites showed a 60% increase in graduation rates, a 128% increase in Grade 9 reading scores, a 24% drop in chronic absenteeism, and a 56% decline in the dropout rate. Meanwhile, non-RJ sites showed only a 7% increase in the graduation rate (57% below that of RJ sites), only an 11% increase in Grade 9 reading scores (117% below that of RJ sites), an increase of 62% in the chronic absenteeism (an 86% difference from RJ sites), and only a modest 17% decline in the dropout rate (39% below that of RJ sites). The OUSD noted how racial disparities in school discipline reports have also declined while noting how Blacks used to be referred in far greater numbers than Whites for similar offenses.

Today, a number of Restorative Justice practices are being used with great success. In my book, Unbroken Circles for Schools, I noted the top five research-proven strategies for reducing conflict and wrongful behavior while also increasing student performance and civic behavior. These strategies involve daily circles, peer mediation, justice panels, conferences, and justice circles. Through the use of atonement and Reintegrative Shaming Theory, the focus is placed squarely on a malleable perception of behavior much as Stanford researchers suggest. Meanwhile, overlapping layers of “best suited” practices places a focus on relationships much as the University of Kentucky and Indiana University researchers suggest using. ###

Ken Johnson is a private researcher, writer, lecturer, and consultant on issues of culture and conflict. Organizational architecture and anabolic (positive) conflict are just some of the key issues he investigates. Though written for the school system, his book, Unbroken Circles for Schools, has core concepts which can be applied to various life applications. (Click on the photo of the book above for more information.) To learn more about Ken and his work, CLICK HERE to visit his website.



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