by Julia Steiny
If you look into school-suspension data — state or local — you'll find a bunch of numbers that tell you nothing about the severity of the offenses. You'll find high rates clustered in vague categories like "disorderly conduct" and "subordination/disrespect." Those could mean anything from mouthing off to a teacher to stealing a cell phone. And what do suspensions for "assault" mean? Assault is an arrestable offense, as are stealing, possession of illegal substances, sexual harassment and others. Not everyone knows that often schools often tuck low-level arrestable offenses into suspension data.
But what should a school do with such offenses? Many would insist the police be called. Yes, if the kid has been outright violent or has already thumbed his nose at second chances, schools have little choice but to call the cops. But generally, when kids do largely stupid things, the last thing most educators want is to involve police.
Involvement with the justice system can wreck any kid's future. Colleges ask about convictions, for example. Even when kept quiet, arrests have a way of becoming fairly public. Court proceedings are hard to hide. Higher-income kids might get costly lawyers to help them, but a low-income kid entering the judicial system can seal an ugly fate. The justice system puts poor kids on the assembly line for future prisoners known as "the school-to-prison pipeline." Most urban school adults resist — thank God! — adding more misery to the life of a kid who was born without a break in the first place.
Two bad options. Neither of which holds the kid accountable.
So, schools can: 1. Kick the kid to the cops. Really harsh. Potentially devastating. Or 2. Kick the kid out on suspension, which is basically a vacation on a couch in front of a TV.
There's a ridiculous gap between the two. But all forms of kick-out culture are super convenient. "You're outta here" gets the problem off the school's immediate plate and onto someone else's. It also postpones getting a real solution. As problems grow, solutions get harder — stupid experimentation with drugs can grow into a tough habit to break. So in the long run, kicking out can become wildly expensive. Look no further than America's prison system with its worlds-record-breaking numbers of inmates.
Conferencing assembles a crisis-intervention team.
Schools in Baltimore, MD, Oakland, CA, and elsewhere are starting to introduce restorative-justice "conferencing" as another option. If the offenders and their families take responsibility for their actions and come to conference, the school won't call the cops, for now. Victims, when there are such, also must agree. If the parties want police involvement instead, that's their choice. But international experience shows that conferences are highly preferable and cost-effective.
Conferences stop the assembly line to gather a small group of family and allies, and perhaps a social-service support or two, to unpack the situation. How did we get here? What's going on at home, in the community, among the offender's friends that she would come to school high or boost a kid's laptop? Conference participants help each other understand how to change the circumstances so the offense won't happen again.
Ideally, the offender collaborates with parents, victims, and other participants to develop restitution plans. When and if the plan is completed, congratulations Kid! You've got a clean slate.
Currently, schools don't have the capacity to do this.
The problem is that conferencing takes time and labor — and sometimes tons of patience with parents who prove to be a bigger problem than the kid. A facilitator has to make the calls, get the participants clear about the rules and consequences, and then monitor progress on the restitution plan. Hardest of all is building partnerships with community members and businesses to create restitution options. If the kid punches a hole in the wall, best she learn to drywall and fix the mess she made. Sometimes kids need a fat reminder they live in a community that doesn't appreciate cleaning up after their messes.
Most schools are already stretched to the max. In some countries, conferencing is run by police departments, but America's police are generally so punitive we wouldn't want them doing the work. The press, researchers, and advocacy groups make a lot of noise about the school-to-prison pipeline. It wrecks kids, after all, along with the future workforce and public-services budgets. But few states or municipalities want to put resources into alternatives.
This is changing. Recently the Central Falls School Department received a National Institute of Justice grant to get a conferencing system up and running. They'll collaborate on this with 4 schools in other districts. I am intimately involved in this initiative. We're trying to design a system that holds kids accountable, but in a way that helps them not just stay out of trouble, but get onto a good track. We can't just keep doing what we've been doing. It wrecks kids.
Please, wish us the best of luck.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.