Instituting restorative justice practices in schools directly combats the prison industrial complex.


          by Rann

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, she states, “The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the Black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.”

I see the impact of mass policing in the community I live and teach in everyday. When it comes to who is disciplined and how, Black students are disproportionately criminalized. Their schools often resemble prisons, with random searches from security guards and a requirement to go through metal detectors before gaining entry.

Black students are three times as likely to be suspended from school and/ or arrested on campus than white students. They receive harsher consequences for their actions and are routinely punished

These conditions along with the presence of more law enforcement in schools directly feeds the school-to-prison pipeline. Black children are not only put in harm’s way, they are also expected to adhere to separate and rigid blueprints that do not have their well being in mind. 

In addition, high stakes testing, fewer classes in the arts, the removal of libraries and the lack of recess continue to harm Black children. Students who are over tested are often not allowed time to socialize and exercise. They then begin acting out because there is no outlet for their frustration and the wheel continues. I know from first hand experience. 

If it seems as though Black people are being set up for failure… It’s because we are.

31 states in the U.S. have the highest incarceration rates in the world. Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama suspend, arrest, and expel, more Black children than any other state in the union.  And four out of five of those are former Confederate States.

The school-to-prison pipeline ensures that Black children are ushered into prisons, having already experienced their campuses as one. The private prison industry is reinforced by the miseducation in urban schools. In order to combat these intentional and anti-Black practices, school districts must support and embrace restorative justice and divest in corporal punishment. 

Restorative justice is a practice that focuses on mediation, accountability and agreement rather than punishment. Educators who engage in this method learn to  problem solve with students and parents, finding a just remedy for harm done. It encourages educators to be flexible and discourages operating from a place of penalty. Involving students with restorative justice educators provides a sustainable option to resolving conflict. 

In New York City, 90% of survivors, when given the choice, choose restorative justice practices over incarceration. Instituting restorative justice practices in schools directly combat the prison industrial complex.

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As the director of an after school program, I’ve learned just how transformative restorative justice can be for educators, students, parents and our communities. 

When two former students of mine, got into a fight during our after school program, a teacher was physically hurt. The teacher wanted the young men suspended and both of them were Black. I offered to facilitate a mediation between the parties instead, hoping that it would resolve some of the tension. 

After they spoke, the teacher and students agreed on a resolution to repair the harm done that involved a week of lunch detention and working on a project for a good cause. I wasn’t necessarily thrilled about lunch detention, but I was happy that neither student was suspended and their commitment to supporting that cause endeared those students to the teacher.

Unfortunately, news carried around the school, as it tends to. Although our mediation prevented suspensions, it did not prevent the teachers and administrators in our building to make assumptions about the students who’d fought. Our efforts to help reintegrate students back within the school community without prejudice was necessary.

Supporting students in reintegrating into the school and community after mediation can be challenging. Reintegration isn’t as simple as returning to the classroom. The students who experienced the conflict need support. And that support shows up in different ways. Knowing they are forgiven, restored and valued members of the school community is vital to the reintegration process. 

Though we have yet to perfect our process, we are committed to building campus-wide restorative justice responses to “discipline”.

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Here are some tips for educators who want to build their classrooms in a way that honors restorative justice techniques:

  1. Organize regular sharing circles where students and instructors can share their hopes, fears and lessons in an effort to learn from and value one another.  
  2. Normalize mediation and discussing conflict.
  3. Have community agreements and do regular check-ins to ensure that those agreements are honored. And check-in to see if they need to be adjusted.
  4. Be mindful of not reinforcing punitive dynamics inside your classroom.  

Restorative justice is a process that takes time, work and commitment. Suspensions, expulsions and arrests do nothing to support the work we claim to be doing as educators. I pray that we come to a place where we agree that Black children are worth the required effort and hard work. 

Rann Miller directs a 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey — one of 63 statewide. He spent 6 years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He is the creator, writer and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. His writing on race and urban education has appeared in Education WeekHechinger Report, and the Progressive, where he is an education fellow. Follow him on Twitter:@UrbanEdDJ and on Instagram: @urbanedmixtape