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Restorative Justice Gives Our Children Dignity in US Schools

It’s time to implement restorative justice principles in all institutions serving US youth.

Nineteen states still allow corporal punishment in schools - yet all evidence supports the idea that physical assaults against young people increase violence, decrease learning and disrupt school life. (Image: Young student via Shutterstock)

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The deadly attacks against Black bodies made by police officers in our communities are mirrored by physical attacks against Black bodies made by officers in our schools.

The October 2015 physical assault of a Black student who refused to leave her desk in South Carolina’s Spring Valley High School was a particularly acute example of this, but in reality a spectrum of related violence is directed at Black students every day.

Black children are more likely to be physically disciplined in US schools than any other racial group. Black children are also more likely to be suspended than other children – even when the offense they commit is the same. That final detail is critical. It is difficult to imagine a blond girl of the same age and attitude flung about like a doll. It is hard to imagine white children forced into silent stillness, a kind of sublimation, as a classmate is body-slammed, lifted and then tossed across the room.

Restorative justice is enabling schools to create spaces where our children can heal rather than experience further harm.

The obvious normalization of aggressive law enforcement incursions into Spring Valley classrooms is further proven by the covert way other students recorded the incident. Children in fear remain rigidly in place when an adult muscles one of them onto the ground. Children for whom this level of violence is routine do not rise in panic as they bear witness. Children aware that they will be targeted for recording it all pull their phones back into their bags in fear. Yet some students bravely acted as allies and did in fact catch it all for the girl in their class.

In their video, Richland County Deputy Ben Fields towers over her. He grabs her neck. He yanks her backward. He slams her on her back. She is still in her chair. He lifts her off the ground. He throws her several feet.

She is a child. We do not see her face. We do not know her name. She is too young for that.

She is not an anomaly. This is not some rare occurrence – and it is not limited to the actions of officers. Nineteen states still allow corporal punishment in schools. Twelve of those states were part of the Confederacy. Yet all evidence supports the idea that physical assaults against young people increase violence, decrease learning and disrupt school life.

Experts believe that there are between 2 and 3 million cases of corporal punishment in US schools each year. Victims of corporal punishment are most often young Black boys who attend rural schools. Each year, 10,000 to 20,000 children who receive corporal punishment request medical treatment after the beatings occur. In his 2010 testimony before the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities, Donald E. Greydanus, a pediatrician, professor of pediatrics and human development at Michigan State University, and pediatrics program director at the MSU Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, concluded that:

  • There is no clear evidence that such punishment leads to improved control in the classroom.
  • Corporal punishment has major deleterious effects on the physical and mental health of students punished in this manner.
  • It severely reduces and does not enhance the academic success of students who are subjected to corporal punishment in schools.
  • The use of corporal punishment in schools reinforces physical aggression and promotes violence in society.

Fortunately, activists have long resisted the imposition of violent disciplinary systems on students of color – and some of them are doing so by providing creative and effective alternatives. Since 2005, Fania Davis has been providing tools for teachers to foster violence-free classrooms through her organization, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. The civil rights attorney and community activist, who earned a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley and a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Integral Studies, was inspired by the success of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa and restorative juvenile justice legislation in New Zealand.

“In 1989,” Davis told Truthout, “New Zealand passed national legislation that replaced their punitive juvenile justice system with a restorative one, following organizing and pressure by the Maori, an indigenous, oppressed group in that country. Within little more than 10 years in that country, youth incarceration became virtually obsolete – restorative strategies are being used, except for cases of homicide. We can learn a lot from the New Zealand experience.”

Rather than punitive forms of discipline, restorative justice (RJ) seeks a holistic approach to individuals that includes family and community, repairs harm, addresses causes of behavior and meets victims’ needs, while promoting youth accountability and growth. In a case like the one at Spring Valley High School, Davis explains, an RJ approach would start with adults “trained to see the kind of behavior the student exhibited as a manifestation of trauma, rather than seeing the behavior as being disrespectful and defiant toward them personally as an authority figure.” Adequate RJ training would lead staff to ask questions that reduce fear and help the child shift to a more “reflective state of relaxed alertness.”

“The restorative conversation in the classroom would lead to a deeper conversation with the child and other adults who care about her in which her backstory would have surfaced,” Davis added. “An RJ circle to bring together everyone impacted to share stories and feelings, talk from the heart and with respect about what happened, how it impacted everyone, and come up with a plan to address needs and responsibilities and to heal the harm to the degree possible. In this case the circle would have been called with the student, the teacher and adult family members or caregivers of the child. Apologies might be made, and ideally, everyone would feel heard and seen and have their needs addressed.”

RJ is enabling schools to begin to create spaces where our children can heal rather than experience further harm, as the Spring Valley student did when she was arrested after the physical assault in her classroom occurred. Indeed, at a school that embraced RJ, the assault likely would never have taken place at all, as the security officer would not have been called in to manage something as simple as a child’s grip on her cell phone. Davis notes that in schools structured around restorative justice principles, 88 percent of teachers reported that implementation of RJ helped them manage difficult classroom behaviors.

The benefits of RJ implementation extend far beyond improved classroom management. Davis cites a 2015 study that compared academic and social outcomes of RJ versus non-RJ schools over a period of three years that found an increase in graduation rates of 60 percent and an increase of reading scores of 128 percent. Meanwhile, chronic absence decreased by 24 percent and four-year dropout rates decreased by 56 percent.

The shift from punitive to restorative institutions requires the buy-in and full-on participation of the entire community. In schools, that includes cafeteria workers and maintenance staff as well as school administrators, teachers, and other professionals and paraprofessionals. One full-time member of the school personnel must be adequately trained and experienced to spearhead RJ initiatives on-site and enable effective implementation of schoolwide buy-in, according to Davis.

Investment of resources, financial and otherwise, is crucial to liberate youth from the dangers of punitive strategies. And right now is a vital time to push for these shifts in both resources and mentalities.

“Timing for rapid change couldn’t be better, given the dramatic rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the resulting unprecedented national conversation about race, the racialized school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration strategies,” Davis said.

It’s time to build momentum in the wake of videotaped incidents like the one at Spring Valley High. Schools throughout the Bay Area have begun to implement RJ, as have schools in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Colorado, Maine, Montana and many other states. Certainly, all our children deserve implementation of RJ in every school – and other institutions serving youth – everywhere, nationwide. It’s time to build rather than debase.

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