NEA and Partners Promote Restorative Justice in Schools

Educators cannot stand by as tens of thousands of African-American, Latino, and other students get pushed out of school for minor disciplinary infractions, said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, who on Friday helped release a new toolkit that aims to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” through the use of restorative policies and practices.

“Far too many of our most vulnerable students are excluded from class for minor, non-violent behavior,” cautions Van Roekel, “putting them at great risk for academic failure and an unnecessary journey down the school-to-prison pipeline. And far too many educators lack the support and resources to meet their students’ developmental needs.”

The racial disparities start at a shockingly early age. According to a new U.S. Education Department study, Black 4- and 5-year-old students account for almost half of the preschoolers suspended more than once from school, even though they make up just 18 percent of preschool students. Overall, federal data shows that Black students of all ages are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than White students.

The consequences are huge: Even a single suspension greatly increases the odds of students repeating a grade, dropping out of school, and ending up in the criminal justice system. What’s more, a closer look at the data shows that students of color, as well as LGBT youth and children with disabilities, are more likely to be suspended, expelled, or arrested for behaviors that go undisciplined in their White peers. Research also shows that White students are more likely to be suspended or expelled for “observable” offenses, like fighting or drug possession, while Black students are much more likely to be disciplined for less objective offenses, like “disrespect.”

Federal investigators have concluded that race is a factor, and disciplinary reactions often are led by implicit bias. “You really have to look at the data to see what kind of challenges you have and where those challenges might be,” said Harry Lawson, associate director of NEA‘s Human and Civil Rights department. “Nobody thinks it’s their school. Part of our work is creating awareness.”

A Tale of Two Schools (Click to Enlarge)

The other part of NEA’s work is providing relevant tools to educators and communities that will help them avoid frequent use of harmful discipline. To that end, NEA has moved to help educators use “restorative practices,” or approaches that build healthy relationships and a sense of community. Those practices might include: community service, peer juries, preventative and post-conflict mediation programs, and more.

But you don’t have to change the way everybody works in your district, said Lawson. “You can start by reflecting on your own practice, and what you do in your classroom.”

On an individual basis, it might mean asking yourself, “What am I doing to make students welcome in my classroom?” On a community-wide basis, it might mean new parental involvement programs. (For more information about how to implement restorative practices, check out the new toolkit offered jointly by NEA, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and the Advancement Project.)

For example, in Madison, Wis., volunteers from the YWCA Madison trains students at eight middle and high schools to be “circle keepers.” In these circles, students, school staff, and a YWCA volunteer sit down to deal with the disciplinary referrals that might regularly lead to suspensions. But their solutions prioritize accountability and community healing over punishment. Since implementing the program, suspensions have declined 15 percent at participating schools, and 76 percent of the students referred to the program for disruptive behaviors have not repeated that behavior.

NEA also offers its members training on cultural competency, diversity, LGBT issues and more, and partners with other organizations on this issue, like the Advancement Project and the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign. At the same time, NEA makes sure the voices of educators are represented in policy discussions around these issues. Just two weeks ago, in Mississippi, NEA Executive Committee Member Kevin Gilbert participated in a panel co-sponsored by NEA and U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi that brought together Mississippi educators and elected officials to talk about the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Our students are being pushed out of our schools and into a direct line that’s feeding our prison systems,” said Gilbert. “Our schools are supposed to help create productive, civic-minded citizens who give back to society. But this trend is having a more detrimental impact, especially on students of color.’’