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Corporal Turned Capital: Considering Restorative Justice as an Intervention to the School-to-Prison Pipeline

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Insinuating a revolution in our public education system, sociopolitical climate, and STEM fields. Avid lover of the arts and all things science.

In an education system constructed by injustice, restorative programs present an opportunity for redefining what justice is, and who it works for.

Mina Freeburg and Emily Bach, 2019 Student Voice Journalism Fellows


History of Zero Tolerance

The American education system supposedly ensures that all students have equal access to education. From access to economic opportunity to youth incarceration rates, the economic and societal disparities between white students and students of color continue to grow. Due to the immense gap, the amount of punitive school punishment and forceful absences increases, causing a catastrophic impact on students. Consequently, this reinforces the development of an infrastructure for pushing black youth into prisons, widely known as the school-to-prison pipeline.as the school-to-pipeline effect.

The problem, at its core, is perception. Students navigating the education system should be perceived impartially. Just like the corrupt prison system, the abolition of oppressive penal compositions is not just important, but necessary.

The Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 laid the groundwork to legally protect schools from reverse prosecution for implementing zero-tolerance policies. The law, which intended to end gang violence in schools, provides legal coverage for schools instituting maximum penalties for weapons and illegal substance-related cases. In practice, it exacerbates unequal punishment for youth of color. Similar to mandatory minimum laws instituted through legislation like the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the act institutes harsh penalties that impact youth of color at rates immensely higher than their white peers. As with the War on Drugs-era legislation, the same unjust nature of our criminal justice system translates into our education system, hitting the most vulnerable the hardest.

In response, schools across America saw a massive increase in suspensions and expulsions. Today, the ACLU notes that students of color experience high school dropout rates nearly double that of their white counterparts. This fact continues to impact disparities between black and white familial wealth today.

School districts across the country have since developed their own legislative standards towards mandatory punishments, making it drastically more difficult for education advocates to fight for student voices in disciplinary hearings. Unfortunately, suspensions and expulsions across the country are used today as the minimum benchmark standard for discipline. In some school counties, students are suspended for issues as small as forgetting a source in a bibliography or unsubstantiated claims against them.

“For far too many students, entering the gateway to incarceration begins with a referral from the classroom to the courtroom.” — Americanbar.org

Today, a public school student is suspended every second and a half. When students are ripped from the classroom through disciplinary procedures that they commonly have little voice in, it only exacerbates their vulnerability. Punitive punishment occurs because it looks like it works, but it doesn’t. In fact, it has been proven time and time again to have little to no change in a students behavior. Instead of changing the morality or perspective of a student, traditional forms of disciplinary actions rips students away from their rightful education and community, criminalizing them in the process. When a student is taken from their classroom, it is not surprising there is a direct link to a lack of academic success. The effects of suspension, arrest, seclusion, restraint and other forms of punishment are shown to have a decrease in english and math success, while increasing future absences and worsened behavior. In-school suspensions rely on a false premise: that discipline without teaching can change student behavior when they are proven to have a negative impact on a student's education, surrounding environment and society as a whole.

Restorative justice

The legacy of the US’ exclusionary education system is clearly exemplified through its disciplinary system. Zero tolerance policies most significantly impact students who come from low-income households, have learning disabilities or experience racism, poverty or abuse. Instead of receiving the counseling and educational support they need, students are ostracized and punished without the opportunity for growth, whilst their education is stripped from them. Marginalized students, especially students of color are pushed further to isolation and often enter the school-to-prison pipeline, where suspended or expelled students are nearly three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile or criminal justice system the following year.

In response, some school counties have begun restorative justice programs. The programs bring together groups in conflict through peer-mediated groups, with the hope of deterring future conflicts and developing community-based solutions to ongoing issues. While the specifics of individual programs vary greatly, the merits behind their success don’t. Nearly every empirical study of restorative justice programs has proven that they’re successful in decreasing rates of violence and discipline.

These districts are finding that restorative practices, once understood, can be understood through a few simple steps. First, restorative justice cases are commonly referred by a student, as opposed to a teacher or administrator in traditional disciplinary procedures. Second, both students must be willing to admit some level of fault for restorative justice to work. Third, through deliberation between students, third-party figures like administrators, teachers or therapists, a mutually-agreed-upon result is determined. Finally, the proceedings are, and will always be, confidential to allow both students the opportunity to speak openly and authentically about their actions.

Counties like Fairfax County Public Schools have led the nation in progressive, thoughtful, and inclusive restorative justice policies. The county’s multi-tiered initiative has a variety of different sub-programs that vary by offense, from bullying to cheating. Some schools like Oakton High School even include trained students on hearing panels, in hopes of developing a more comprehensive picture of student culture.

Across the nation, restorative justice programs have drastically reduced expulsion and suspension rates, in some counties, even by half. Counties like Fairfax, VA have a ten percent recidivism rate, a number which pales in comparison to county-wide averages. National studies have found time and time again that restorative justice programs help students feel included in decision-making processes. Within Fairfax County, 91% of students said they felt heard in restorative justice procedures, 95% of parents were satisfied by their outcomes, and 99% of teachers felt that the restorative justice process was fair.

While restorative justice won’t combat the circumstances that often force students into making bad decisions, it can help them to grow and learn from their experiences in a way that considers the backstory behind them. Restorative justice doesn’t just include student voices, it relies on them. In an education system built and sustained by injustice, these programs present an opportunity for change.

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(Photo Credit: ACLU)

American pedagogy is not broken, it is running its course just like it was built for. Like clockwork, the voices of the most marginalized are silenced and time is running out. Education is dwindling and becoming a privilege not a right in a society that is predicated on elitism as a guise for opportunity. Reform will only mitigate the disparity within education’s framework. The use of corporal and punitive punishment needs to be abolished in order to salvage precious knowledge production. Inspiration is the catalyst for change, one should advocate for a system that prioritizes the student, not the labor. Restorative justice needs to replace the corporal turned capital punishment destroying America.

The education system is unforgiving and embedded in violence. For a definition of justice that works for everyone, a reshaped discipline system is necessary to dismantle its tyrannical premise. Under the guise of corporal guidance, there are external factors involved with punishment, including outside circumstances, ignorance and accidental mistakes, that are often ignored. Through zero-tolerance discipline policies, the resemblance between the oppressive prison and school system has come into full focus. Whether we continue with violent forms of punishment or adopt restoration will make or break a students’ future. Restorative justice is key.