So I have been asked often and recently: why or how does Restorative Justice address disproportionality in discipline? What I mean by disproportaionality is: students of color (particularly African-America and Hispanic youth) receive discipline punishments at a greater rate than their population rates would indicate. Furthermore, research has shown that students of color don’t “act up” any more than their peers. The problem arises when youth of color are disciplined more readily and receive harsher punishments than their peers. The final conclusion of this work is, youth who experience exclusionary discipline policies are less likely to graduate high school, go to college, and less likely to graduate college (if they beat the odds and get there). Thus, disproportionate discipline contributes greatly to the Achievement Gap.
Restorative Justice changes the messaging and trajectory for youth of color. Tom Halverson professor of Education at the University of Washington talks about policy tools and “policy pressure.” That is to say what force is the policy exerting on the subjects? Or by what pressure is it trying to change behavior? Policy tools are mandates, incentives (negative and positive), and normative. Mandates are normally from the district or State; they tell schools they will do this or that. Incentives are at the school level. Positive incentives, for example the class party if the average GPA is above a 3.0 or the use of a school incentive currency. Negative incentives are traditional punishments, detention for being late or suspension for fighting. Normative policy tools are the standardizing of a particular behavior, this is how we line up here or these are the expectations of the project. Normative tools will include the reasons why things are the way they are. Normative tools internalize behavior.
Negative or positive incentive programs create an external locus of control. While normative tools create and develop an internal locus of control, which leads to great school engagement and long term behavior change. Exclusionary policy pushes students away from the school, caring adults, and positive peers both literally and figuratively. Literally school put distance between the school and the student. Figuratively they communicate a message that the youth is not welcome at the school.
– The vast majority of messaging youth of color receive is that “they don’t belong.” Youth of color experience messaging through a number of sources and each experience is unique but the message is the same – you’re different and have a different role in our society.
– Schools will never be successful at closing the Achievement Gap if they continue to tell/show youth of color that they don’t belong in school.
Restorative Justice can be a tool that clearly expresses inclusion into the school community. I don’t know many teachers or administrators that have given up on youth. But I understand that there has been a lack of tools to hold youth accountable and at the same time communicate clearly that youth of color are an essential part of the school and community; and that they have every opportunity to be successful in school, post-secondary, and life. If we change the policy pressure we can change the direction of youth behavior.