Combating the Suspension to Prison Pipeline with Restorative Justice
Jaisal Noor of The Real News Network recently sat down with high school senior, and organizer with the Dignity in Schools Campaign, to discuss the impact that zero tolerance polices have on youth in the Baltimore public school system. Murphy explains that there is a heavy police presence throughout his high school, but rather than increasing student safety on campus, Murphy contends that this over-reliance on law enforcement has decreased students’ perceived sense of safety.
“...it made me raise a series of questions, one of which was: is this school safe? Because the first thing that I do when I walk into a new high school is see a police officer. And so that made me aware of, like, do I--should I constantly be alert at all times here?”
In addition to students’ sense of safety being compromised, increased police presence combined with zero tolerance polices have led to sky-rocketing rates of suspension, primarily among students of color and students with disabilities. The New York World reports that during the 2012-2013 school year, New York City public schools dolled out 53,465 suspensions. The New York World reveals further, that more than half of these suspensions targeted Black students who make up just 27% of the student population. Special education students, who make up 12% of the student population, accounted for one-third of all suspensions.
Broken down by borough, Bronx students represent 51% of all arrests, suspensions, and tickets for school-related offenses, followed by Brooklyn (30%), Queens (11.4%), Manhattan (10.4%), and Staten Island (1.5%). A similar trend is found when this data is broken down by race: roughly 50% of all suspensions were of Black students, followed by Latino (33%) and white students (15%).
Pushing Students Out
Faced with this increasing criminalization of public schools and the student body, Jaisal Noor asks the following question: Are we preparing kids to go to jail, or preparing them for a future? Unfortunately for students, teachers, and parents the answer appears to be the former.
The United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City teachers asserts that punitive measures such as suspensions should be the absolute last resort used to deal with student misbehavior, if used at all. The unfortunate reality however, is that suspensions are the first, and in many cases the only, tactic employed by public schools to deal with minor student conduct infractions. For example, the second most common offense leading to a suspension in New York City schools is “defying or disobeying authority”.
This punitive culture has led to the disturbing and increasing trend that high school senior Tre Murphy described above: namely, increasing reliance on law enforcement officials to handle disciplinary issues that take place on school grounds . A complaint filed with the U.S Department of Justice this past Wednesday against Wake County, N.C., school district and law enforcement agencies contends that the district has failed to “stem the tide of students being pushed out of school into juvenile and criminal court systems".
Huffington Post contributor Saki Knafo details how minor incidents of misbehavior in the Wake County school district—such as cutting in a cafeteria lunch line—have landed students in jail. As with raising rates of suspensions, this trend disproportionally impacts students of color and students with disabilities.
Combating the School to Prison Pipeline
The last few years have seen a strong push back by students, parents, and teachers against punitive responses to school disciplinary issues. Notable successes of this fightback include the recent decision of the Los Angeles Unified school board to ban suspensions for the act of “willful defiance”. This offense has been “criticized as a subjective catch-all for such behavior as refusing to take off a hat, turn off a cellphone or failing to wear a school uniform". Students exhibiting disruptive behavior will no longer be suspended, instead, positive behavior reinforcement and other more effective intervention measures will be used. Indeed, current punitive practices which remove students from schools, and increasingly land them in jail, have been linked with decreased academic achievement and increased run-ins with law enforcement.
Advocates in New York City are hopeful that the election of Bill de Blasio as Mayor will usher in a wave of school-based disciplinary reforms, with a particular emphasis on restorative justice responses to student misbehavior. In June of 2013, de Blasio co-authored a letter calling on the city Department of Education to “expand the use of positive interventions and restorative justice practices, such as counseling, mediation, fairness committees, and restorative circles in lieu of suspensions, except when suspension is required by law". Many New York City schools have already begun to implement such practices and, students report, they have had a positive impact on the student body. Bronx international high school junior and trained peer mediator Jessica Morillo states, “Let’s say we get into a fight…before we had the mediation program at our school, we would have never talked and gotten to a real solution. We would have just got each other suspended. I would be angry and you would be angry.”
Some within the city Department of Education contend that the costs of retraining teachers and hiring additional staff such as school social workers is too high and beyond the shrinking budget of public schools. Advocates however, disagree. Anna Bean of the New York City-based Teachers Unite asserts, “It doesn’t cost very much money. Just 1 percent of School Safety budget would fund all of this". New York World reports that Bean’s comment refers to the $220 million that was spent in 2012 to keep unarmed NYPD officers in public schools. Thus, it appears that the difficulties associated with funding alternative disciplinary measures in pubic schools lies not with a lack of money, but with an unequal allocation of resources.
The advocacy and activist work carried out by concerned teachers, students, and parents is inspiring for anyone who is interested in the development of alternatives to current approaches to wrongdoing. In response to ineffective and harmful school-based policies, those who have been directly and indirectly effected are waging a vigorous fight against the continued criminalization and marginalization of youth within schools. With continued education on the pitfalls of the current system, coupled with the development of responsive, victim-centered solutions, 2014 is bound to see exciting changes in school-based disciplinary measures.