Rhode Island Symposium Promotes Restorative Justice in Schools

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

Rhode Island College hosted a symposium, “Restorative Practices,” to discuss how Rhode Island handles school discipline. The symposium, attended by more than 100 people, offered insight on how to move Rhode Island schools away from an expensive and adversarial punishment system and toward restorative justice by bringing families, educators, and students together.

The underlying premise of restorative practices is to improve social and mental health in Rhode Island while working in tandem with students and school administrators. Ruth Feder, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island, said: “Mental health in Rhode Island is in crisis. We need to break out of the traditional medical model in how we address mental health.”

A key practice in restorative justice is emphasizing the importance of listening, not interrupting — being heard, not blamed. Effective listening can be established by talking in the first-person voice. According to Richard Asinof of the website Convergence, much of the transformative justice work going on in Rhode Island is based of the restorative work first developed in New Zealand.

The symposium’s participants shared the innovative work that has been taking place in Rhode Island through a $3.68 federal grant awarded in 2014. They have developed a pilot project to make schools safer by investing in restorative justice practices.

“The premise is that there are alternatives to the expensive and adversarial punishment systems,” Julia Steiny, head of the Youth Restoration Project, said in her opening remarks at the symposium. Ultimately, restorative practices “can reduce the schools-to-prisons pipeline.”

Research shows that schools suspensions, a practice that advocates of restorative justice think of as punitive, increase the likelihood of student disengagement, social isolation, academic failure, and juvenile delinquency. Reportedly, being suspended just once in ninth grade increases the likelihood of dropping out of high school two-fold.

Specifically, there were 43,129 days of suspension issued in Rhode Island in the 2014 – 2015 academic year; about 7.5% of all students received a suspension. Suspensions accounted for about half of the total disciplinary practices used by the Rhode Island school system. Steiny believes that restorative justice can replace suspensions and thus avoid their negative ramifications.

Done effectively, restorative justice builds a sense of community at a school based on mutual respect, openness, and interpersonal relationships. For example, Troy Silvia, the principal of Central Falls High School, described an incident in which a student was reported striking something with a knife. The student was trying to open a can of pineapples, but the occurrence, at first glance, could have led to the student being punished or arrested. Instead, thanks to restorative practices, it became a teachable moment to engage with students about issues of safety and communication.

Steiny recognizes the challenges in implementing restorative practices. “The restorative practices work best when communities are fairly stable,” she said. “Of course, you have to stabilize them first. There’s no end to the nuances and challenges out there.” But she remains committed to giving Rhode Island educators the support needed transform their schools into moral communities. “Right now, we’re just trying to get people the basic tools, to work together, with a common language.”

For interested readers, more information on restorative justice in Rhode Island can be found on the Youth Restoration Project’s website.