When I first met him, Danny1 was a 10th grader at a local DC Public High School. Jet-black hair shot out from under his Nats cap, and his eyes intensely stared at the ground. He was escorted into the room by the Dean of Students after swinging a baseball bat at a senior in the second floor bathrooms. He was caught before anyone was seriously injured.
According to usual disciplinary protocol, Danny would get at least three weeks suspension. Rumor had it that he ran with the local affiliate of a national Latino gang. It was easy to imagine what might happen if Danny was suspended: without school or supervision from his working single mother, he would increasingly turn to the gang for support, belonging, encouragement, and something to do. If he did return to school, he would be three weeks behind, with faltering grades and the stigma of a being “bad kid.” In the face of these obstacles, it would only be a matter of time before he dropped out or was expelled. Once back on the streets without credentials, basic skills, or opportunities for gainful employment, criminal activity would beckon. At first, Danny would be arrested and detained as a juvenile. But soon enough, Danny might be facing long-term incarceration amongst the 2.2 million inmates in the US criminal justice system.
Fortunately, that was not Danny’s fate. Once in the room, the Dean of Students sat him down in a circle of chairs, next to him his mother and friend, across from him the senior he had tried to hurt. The senior’s father, the Dean, and a teacher were also present. Sitting between Danny and the senior, I acted as the facilitator of a community conference, one of a number of processes often referred to as “restorative practices.”
Restorative practices offers a school community a concrete and effective approach to building school culture and responding to harm in a way that embraces relationships, inclusiveness, and accountability. It is a departure from over a decade of counter-productive punitive approaches that have characterized school discipline, mirrored the juvenile delinquency system, and pushed students into the “school-to-prison” pipeline. If replacing punishment with talking circles sounds naïve or jarring, ask yourself: how is a punished student to take responsibility for his or her actions, repair the harm, or learn the skills needed to avoid the same problem next time? How does punishment address the underlying issues that might cause the misbehavior? After being suspended, how is a struggling student expected to return to school, catch up, and feel safe and a part of the community, as opposed to dropping out and engaging in activities that are more satisfying and in groups that are more accepting?
As reported by the American Psychological Association, zero-tolerance and accompanying suspensions “appear to predict higher future rates of misbehavior and suspension among those students who are suspended.” Moreover, the impact of such exclusionary methods has revealed startling disparities along lines of race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status. For example, black students are three times more likely to be suspended and expelled than white students.
In contrast, restorative practices are a promising method for reversing these trends, and have been endorsed as such by both the US Department of Education and the US Department of Justice. Whereas traditional discipline imposes rules that students were not part of creating and then enforces their compliance through extrinsic rewards and punishments, restorative practices cultivate intrinsic motivation by building self-awareness and empathy. They give voice to the human stories and needs behind the broken rules and empower students to participate in the process of problem solving. The resulting socio-emotional capacity not only turns crises into authentic learning moments and prevents future harm at its roots, it also instills competencies that are the major indicators of future professional and personal success.
Initially, Danny resisted talking. He held his downward gaze, vehemently denied any gang involvement, and angrily blamed the senior for starting the beef out at the bus stop last week. Then the senior spoke. He was tall and dark-skinned with a tank top and a close buzz cut. He recounted how the same clique he saw Danny running with had accosted his elderly uncle over two years ago as part of an age-old neighborhood turf war. He told us that he stopped hanging around with his old “homies” and was intent upon getting his act together in his last year of high school so he could go on to college, but that he was not going to take any side talk from others. Then – with quivering voices and moistened eyes – both parents spoke of the love, worry, and pain they held inside seeing and listening to their sons. All of a sudden, Danny began to choke up. He covered his face with his cap. A trickle of words turned into a flood. He mentioned his struggles in school and the bullying from others, his father who had been deported to El Salvador, the gang he had joined and now wanted to leave, and his mother whom he loved and wished he could support.
Restorative practices embody a holistic continuum that contains both proactive approaches to building community such as peacemaking circles and responsive approaches to addressing harm such as the community conference that Danny participated in. Core to all these approaches is an emphasis on relationships. Research has found that students who are emotionally connected to their peers and to adults that value learning and expect high levels of academic performance, adopt the value of academic achievement and have a positive academic orientation. When students feel a sense of connection, they thrive. In addition to academic outcomes, researchers have correlated strong relationships with lower levels of emotional distress, suicidal ideation, involvement in violence, and tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use in adolescents. Other researchers found perceived school belonging to be associated with increased positive school-related affect, empathy, self-esteem, and higher levels of general optimism.
Indeed, schools that have implemented restorative practices from all or parts of the continuum have seen reductions in the number of incidents of disruptive behavior and in the number of suspensions. Some schools have found that racial inequities in suspensions disappeared after they implemented restorative justice programs. In addition to these quantitative outcomes, many school administrators have observed that restorative practices promoted a sense of safety in the school, supported positive relationships between students and adults, and improved academic performance.
By the end of the community conference, Danny was holding his mother in his arms as he translated into Spanish the agreement the entire group had come up with to put things right again. Danny will apologize and join a special intervention club for Latino youth at the school. He will work together with a school counselor to find strategies for leaving the gang and dealing with the loss of his father. Danny and the senior will both give each other space and stay on friendly terms. The senior’s father committed to being more involved in his son’s life. They all signed the agreement. The next day, Danny was back in class and three years later now, both Danny and the senior have graduated from high school free of any other disciplinary incidents.
 Based on a true story with fictionalized names.