Restorative Justice Legislation In Delaware Would Decrease Suspension Rates & School To Prison Pipeline

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This legislation hasn’t even been filed.  It was sent to me anonymously.  I have very mixed feelings about this.  There are many things kids are suspended for and probably shouldn’t be.  But to limit suspension rates over bodily injury, threats of bodily injury or death but not in self-defense, or bringing weapons to school.

What about racial epithets?  Or swearing at a teacher?  Or throwing furniture but not causing bodily injury?  Or making sexually suggestive comments to a student?  Those are all things that would have given me a ticket home when I was in school.  Bullying isn’t addressed in this unless it is physical.  If we have zero tolerance for bullying under any circumstances why isn’t this included?

What if a student abuses the new system?  Continuously?  My fear with this type of bill is students trying to get out of class and knowing they won’t be suspended for it.  As well, if a student gets in-school suspension, the parents should be notified right away.

Perhaps the biggest part of this bill concerns students with disabilities.  Under the federal IDEA law, a manifestation determination hearing must be held if a student is suspended a certain amount of time.  If the student isn’t suspended but still showing the behavior that would have caused the suspension prior to the implementation of this law, how can an IEP team have the manifestation determination hearing?  The purpose of these is to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan after the school psychologist develops a functional behavioral analysis.  That is federal law.  State law does not trump federal law.  But if the state does away with the catalyst for the federal law, isn’t it essentially taking away rights for students with disabilities?  And does restorative justice replace what is in a developed IEP?

I’ll be honest, restorative justice wasn’t around when I was a kid.  Maybe it is great.  But is it known to work?  In my opinion, all the restorative justice in the world is not going to cure what comes in from a home environment.  If a student comes from a broken home or violence, it may temper the behavior but it doesn’t get rid of the outside of school problems that could be a very big reason for the behavior.  I would caution our legislators on passing this bill as written.  There are too many factors at play here that haven’t been looked at yet.  Which could be why it wasn’t filed yet.

Restorative Justice came about in prisons.  I have no problem with anyone making amends.  But it is for criminal behavior.  By using this in schools, are we making some issues bigger than they  are?

On the other hand, this law would reduce many suspensions that are completely unnecessary.  When I hear about the reasons some kids are suspended, I shake my head.  But then again, sometimes suspensions dealing with weapons brought to school could be seen as overreaching depending on the circumstances.  We need consistency but we also need common sense.  There are never easy answers.  But I would love to hear your thoughts on this.  Keep in mind, this bill hasn’t even been filed yet.

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Can Restorative Justice Change Our Schools?

Drew Serres, a member of the Coalition for Fairness & Equity in School, wrote an excellent letter to the editor in the News Journal today about Restorative Justice and suspensions in Delaware Schools.

Since its passage, House Bill 85 has been adversely affecting all students; but it has had a disproportionate effect on students of color and those with disabilities. For instance, African-American and Latino students are suspended three-to-four times more than their white peers, even when they represent a substantially low enrollment rate overall.

This legislation goes back to 1993.  Which is about the time when all of the zero tolerance practices came into play.  Personally, I think some schools cherry-pick students when it comes to discipline and suspensions.  Discrimination rears its ugly head in strange ways in Delaware.

I am lucky. The school policies when I was growing up allowed me to learn from my mistakes. I think all children deserve that opportunity as well.

There are certain offenses that should cause suspensions, in my opinion, especially fighting.  But what do we do when someone is just defending their self when someone attacks them.  If no adult can stop it in time, should another student allow himself to be pummeled?  In today’s world, that student would be suspended as well.  I have been told by a school administrator that if a student puts his hands over his face, that is sufficient.  Really?  That makes the difference?  I don’t condone fighting, but if students have to protect themselves than they should be allowed to do it.  My issue is adults not intervening in time.  I know, fights can happen in an instant, and I don’t blame teachers or school staff for actual fighting.  But I do think they can keep a more watchful eye on students to begin with, especially during transition times, recess, or lunch.

Restorative justice is a model of discipline based on appropriate consequences for a student’s poor behavior and reconciliation of the student and the school system. It is a process where offenders, instead of just being punished, have the opportunity to restore the harm done to the community. It is actually a lot more work for the offender, but instead of feeling ostracized and criminalized they are given the opportunity to restore their inner sense of worth and to get on a path where they learn how to contribute.

My biggest question out of this is how this is dealt with when a student with disabilities has “poor behavior” and doesn’t understand their bad behavior because it is a result of a neurological disability.  All too often, students with disabilities are ostracized in schools because they don’t understand.  Can inclusion truly work in this type of environment or are we putting these kids through the wringer?  I’m all for change because the way it is now just isn’t working.

In the Christina School District, they were mandated by the Office of Civil Rights to reduce the amount of suspensions because African-Americans were being disproportionately suspended.  As a result, they went from zero tolerance to what they have now.  They still have the issues going on they had before the OCR complaint.  However, I have been told by many teachers in Christina they are told not to report infractions because of the OCR mandates.  That just makes the situation worse, but the district is beholden to Federal law in this situation.  As a result, parents who see this do not want to have their child attend Christina schools and they choice them out to charter schools.  As a result, Christina loses a lot of local funding.  This double-edged sword doesn’t work, so we need to do something.

With all the pressure put on teachers on a district, state, and federal level and the demands on their time, do they actually have the time to establish restorative justice techniques between test prep, evaluations, instruction, professional development and test prep?  I heard many teachers had a hard enough time submitting grades into the state E-School system last weekend, on their days off, because the DOE decided that would be a good time to do an upgrade on the system.  Furthermore, if administrators aren’t willing to practice what they preach, will these children be able to separate authority from adults with bad behavior?  If administrators come down on students with an iron fist but at the same time try these techniques on them, it sends a very mixed message that can be very confusing to a student, especially the younger ones.  This obviously depends on the type of behavior exhibited by the student, but this is a very fine line.

What this doesn’t take into account is home life.  If a child’s parents just don’t care enough to practice restorative justice in the home, will a student be able to carry this into school?  Take Christina for example.  As a result of school choice, the “better” students have left.  This leaves the schools with all the perceived “troublemakers”.  If a “troublemaker” choices out, chances are they will be back if the charter counsels them out or expels them.  This leaves a disproportionate number of “troublemakers” in schools.  I can’t stand when these students are referred to as animals.  I truly can’t.  Yes, they have bad behavior and they make bad choices, but to refer to them as barbaric or animalistic demeans them as a human being.

These are tough questions, and I won’t pretend to have all the answers.  But we need to find those answers fast as more lives are lost to the justice system.