“Education was where my heart was,” says Tyrone Sinclair in Growing Fairness, a documentary showcasing the impact restorative-justice programs can have in our nation's schools. Sinclair says he was expelled from school at 16, became homeless, and then ended up in jail. Now, he organizes young people in Los Angeles. “I knew that wasn’t the place for me,” he says of prison. “I love to learn every day.”
Growing Fairness was screened at the Thurgood Marshall Center in Washington, D.C., this Wednesday, at an event hosted by Critical Exposure, a local youth group that trains high-school students in photography so they can document problems in their communities. The audience included mostly high-school students and people in their 20s, most of whom were interested in or researched education reform, though a few older community members and attorneys for civil-rights organizations were also present. The event was part of the fourth annual Week of Action organized by the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a network of grassroots groups who want to reform school discipline by turning schools toward restorative justice instead of well-worn—and ineffective—punitive measures. Restorative justice is a theory of discipline that emphasizes rehabilitation rather than punishment. In 2009-2010, over 3 million students were suspended from K-12 schools, most of them disciplined for minor infractions, like disrupting class. Suspensions do not just mean missed time; they also lower a student’s chances of graduating. People who do not graduate from high school are more likely to be imprisoned later in life. Reformers believe restorative justice can largely stop that process, also known as a school-to-prison pipeline.
Discussion circles and peer mediation are among restorative justice's hallmarks, as is a prohibition on suspensions as punishment for minor offenses. The remarkable success of these practices in several once-dangerous schools helps explain the philosophy’s growing popularity. Notoriously tough Ralph J. Bunch Academy in Oakland cut its suspensions in half in just one year; West Philadelphia High School, one of the city's roughest, reduced violent incidents by over 50 percent in the same amount of time; and arrests at Fenger High School in Chicago—which drew national attention when honors student Derrion Albert was beaten to death outside the school in 2009—cut arrests from over 200 to less than a dozen, also in one year.
In fact, Growing Fairness was produced “because we were receiving an exponentially increasing number of requests from organizations and educators, locally and around the country, for training” in restorative justice, says Sally Lee, executive director of Teachers Unite in New York City. At one middle school featured in Growing Fairness, suspensions fell by almost 90 percent; at a high school in New York City, they fell by a quarter.
Growing Fairness is primarily concerned with the philosophy’s practical implications. We see a community circle in Oakland and a student-led justice panel in New York City. We hear students express gratitude for the program. We also watch the theory guide the policies. In one sequence, Nicholas Merchant-Bleiberg, an assistant principal at the Lyons Community School in New York City, describes the aftermath of a gang leader’s expulsion. “There was a part of that moment that—fairly—was relief,” explaining that the student created “a lot of drama.” Then the dean of students wrote an email that “affected me for life … acknowledging that it’s not anybody’s fault that he didn’t do well, but we have to get better at him.” There will be more gang leaders, and administrators must learn how to help them. “It’s our mandate—we’re supposed to teach kids like him.”
This Week of Action, which ends Saturday, is the biggest ever held. Several Gay Straight Alliance and LGBTQ organizations are participating for the first time and events were held everywhere from rural Mississippi to Miami. The events included community meetings in Little Rock, Arkansas; tours of schools that have limited the role of law enforcement officials in Los Angeles; a march followed by a rally in Lawrenceville, Georgia; town-hall forums in Chicago; a cookout in Paterson, New Jersey; and a play performance in Durham, North Carolina.
Although restorative justice's supporters are increasing, implementing it, like any major reform, will take time—a point emphasized in the film. Some principals and teachers are skeptical that group circles will prevent fist-fights, says Lee. Restorative justice also requires money: a salaried counselor to oversee the program, pay for teachers who work with students after school. That problem is especially acute at a time of slim budgets. After making its remarkable turnaround, Fenger High School in Chicago lost the federal money that funded its restorative-justice program last school year; in Philadelphia, ten schools running pilot restorative practices programs are being squeezed by layoffs of 3,700 school officials and an influx of students from the city's 23 newly closed schools. School closing in both cities—Chicago shuttered 47 this year—disproportionately hit minorities and low-income students, the same groups hurt most by the school-to-prison pipeline. One low-cost change many schools can make is to switch all out-of-school suspensions for minor offenses to in-school suspensions; that change would keep students off the streets, where they are more likely to be arrested. Many cities also have youth organizations that run restorative-justice sessions after school, where young people can resolve their differences and also receive training to advocate for change from public officials.
Even if the funding is not there, the will, at the least the latent will, is. In a recent survey of New York City teachers, Teachers Unite and the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative found that educators believed “overwhelmingly that what makes a school safe was really a whole school-culture approach, not just one isolated practice,” says Lee. Matthew, a 10th grader interviewed in Growing Fairness, echoes that sentiment. “The teachers have a lot of respect for the kids here and I find that amazing,” he says of his new school, which has a restorative-justice program. “Because at my middle school, if you were failing, you were failing—they didn’t offer you anything. But at this school I find that with the support of my teacher and the other teachers here, I can succeed.”