A strategy that some would bring to all levels of the criminal justice system—for which it is manifestly unsuited—is suited for high schools working with troubled students, as this article from the New York Times notes.
“OAKLAND, Calif. — There is little down time in Eric Butler’s classroom.
“My daddy got arrested this morning,” Mercedes Morgan, a distraught senior, told the students gathered there.
“Mr. Butler’s mission is to help defuse grenades of conflict at Ralph J. Bunche High School, the end of the line for students with a history of getting into trouble. He is the school’s coordinator for restorative justice, a program increasingly offered in schools seeking an alternative to “zero tolerance” policies like suspension and expulsion.
“The approach now taking root in 21 Oakland schools, and in Chicago, Denver and Portland, Ore., tries to nip problems and violence in the bud by forging closer, franker relationships among students, teachers and administrators. It encourages young people to come up with meaningful reparations for their wrongdoing while challenging them to develop empathy for one another through “talking circles” led by facilitators like Mr. Butler.
“Even before her father’s arrest on a charge of shooting at a car, Mercedes was prone to anger. “When I get angry, I blank out,” she said. She listed some reasons on a white board — the names of friends and classmates who lost their lives to Oakland’s escalating violence. Among them was Kiante Campbell, a senior shot and killed during a downtown arts festival in February. His photocopied image was plastered around Mr. Butler’s room, along with white roses left from a restorative “grief circle.”
“Restorative justice adopts some techniques of the circle practice that is a way of life for indigenous cultures, fostering collaboration. Students speak without interruption, for example, to show mutual respect.
“A lot of these young people don’t have adults to cry to,” said Be-Naiah Williams, an after-school coordinator at Bunche whose 21-year-old brother was gunned down two years ago in a nightclub. “So whatever emotion they feel, they go do.”
“Oakland expanded the program after an initial success six years ago. Since then, the need for an alternative discipline has become more urgent: Last year, the district faced a Department of Education civil rights investigation into high suspension and expulsion rates, particularly among African-American boys.
“A report by the Urban Strategies Council, a research and policy organization in Oakland, showed that African-American boys made up 17 percent of the district’s enrollment but 42 percent of all suspensions, and were six times more likely to be suspended than their white male classmates. Many disciplinary actions were for “defiance” — nonviolent infractions like texting in class or using profanity with a teacher.
“A body of research indicates that lost class time due to suspension and expulsion results in alienation and often early involvement with the juvenile justice system, said Nancy Riestenberg, of the Minnesota Department of Education, an early adopter of restorative justice. Being on “high alert” for violence is not conducive to learning, she added.
“Many studies have concluded that zero-tolerance policies do not make schools safer.
“We’re a terribly violent community,” said Junious Williams, the chief executive of the Urban Strategies Council. “We have not done very much around teaching kids alternatives to conflict that escalates into violence.”
“Among the lost youngsters was Damon Smith, now an A student at Bunche, who said he had been suspended more than 15 times. “You start thinking it’s cool,” he said. “You think you’re going to come back to school and catch up, but unless you’re a genius you won’t. It made me want to mess up even more.”
“Damon, 18, said restorative justice sessions helped him view his behavior through a different lens. “I didn’t know how to express emotions with my mouth. I knew how to hit people,” he said. “I feel I can go to someone now.”