Drugs, Drop-outs and Restorative Justice Conferencing

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By Julia Steiny

The lovely Roxanna, as we’ll call her, sighed heavily as she joined a circle that included a school administrator, two conference facilitators and her very pissed-off dad.  The teacher who had promised to make it could not.  Roxanna agreed to participate in a restorative-justice conference for drug possession, hoping to resolve the matter by making reparations rather than risk more traditional consequences in which she’ll have little or no say.

Simultaneously sheepish and defiant – common behavior in these conferences – she assured the group that she wasn’t high.  She’d just forgotten that she had a little stash.  Her purse spilled, and an adult saw it.  But she wasn’t stoned or acting weird.  So it wasn’t a big a deal.  She’s hardly the only one who smokes weed occasionally.  Besides, she says, she’s changed.  She has ambitions, so she needs her diploma.

Everyone else at the table thinks it’s a big deal.  Her father certainly didn’t struggle to bring his family from their homeland for the kind of nonsense his kid is dishing out.  To him, this is very personal, very upsetting.

This conferencing program helps divert students from getting caught up in “the system” – meaning Truancy Court, Family Court and the judicial system.  Actually, as the objections to marijuana have relaxed over the years, Rhode Island and other states have made possession of small amounts a matter of relatively minor fines.  Drugs are still illegal for anyone under 18, but Roxanna is over 18.  The police could only issue a ticket for a fine that no one wants to make this dad pay.

The conference is Roxanna’s second chance at a second chance.

While the cops aren’t much of a problem, Roxanna risks losing the opportunity to get her high school diploma. She’s in a special program for students who are “over-aged and under-credited” — meaning that they blew off a significant portion of high school.  She had already dropped out once and now she’s back.  But given her age and drug-involvement, the program has no obligation to keep her.  Everyone at the table hopes she’ll take advantage of this unusual conferencing opportunity to salvage her situation.

The lead facilitator goes over the simple rules – take turns, speak for yourself, no accusatory statements, things like that.  The victims speak first, so the administrator, representing the community, talks with frustration about what a plague drugs in school have become.  Doing drugs out of school is bad enough, but in school drugs wreck learning both for the addled and the students around them.

Roxanna shrugs; she’s not convinced. She reiterates that she wasn’t high.  The adults cringe.

Then the dad tearfully explains how hurt he feels.  He and her siblings love her, but they are ashamed.  Roxanna rolls her eyes.  He’s had to take part of the day off work, which he’ll have to make up.  Mom’s apparently not in the picture.  He seems exhausted.

Roxanna says she’s sorry already, wishing everyone would just chill.  The facilitators shift to the reparations phase, when the group tries to hammer out an agreement.  Assuming she’s remorseful, which seems doubtful at this point, and that she completes the agreement, the slate will be wiped clean with no further repercussions.  Per protocol, the facilitators begin by asking her what she hopes for after high school, what she wants to do for a career.

“I want to be a stewardess.” 

Oka-ay.  Kids who just shrug when asked what they want are far harder to help.  A kid’s dream is like building materials for facilitators; you can work with them.  One facilitator opens a laptop and searches “requirements for becoming a stewardess.”  Humph.  He scans it, reading out loud – you need a high-school diploma or GED…  no visible tattoos.  Ooooo, mandatory drug testing is a condition of hiring for most airlines.  Random drug testing thereafter.  Stewardesses need to be drug-free.

That totally got her attention.  The conference went silent as she digested the information.  Her defensiveness softened.  Her voice was apologetic.  “I really do want to be a stewardess.”  All right, then, what would make this right?  Suddenly becoming a problem-solver, she suggested reparations – three sessions of drug counseling, an essay on the effects of drugs that she would proofread carefully, and the promise to be scrupulously on time to her classes every day.  Writing this agreement was quick; everyone signed.  Dad looked like he could finally sleep at night.  Very gratifying.

Roxanna did finish what she promised to do, and she did it well before the agreement’s deadline.  And she received her diploma in a cap and gown during a mid-year ceremony.  Getting kicked out of the program would have been painful, but not nearly as memorably upsetting as sitting with family and supporters to give an account of her foolish behavior and take responsibility for it.  Without the conference, Roxanna’s misbehavior could have ended her dream.  But I’ll bet she’s a stewardess now.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny