a different approach

As city prepares to rethink school discipline, a look at restorative justice programs in action

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Senior Judith Nkwor is a peer mediator at Validus Prep, a school that has implemented new discipline strategies that aim to minimize suspensions.

It’s a clear morning in mid-June, and Validus Preparatory Academy in the Bronx has that end-of-the-school-year feel. Students bid farewell to teachers, seniors tote freshly printed yearbooks, and most noticeably, students are allowed to disregard the school uniform without a call home or a trip to the principal’s office.

Yet even on a regular day, breaking the dress code would not lead to these consequences. In Validus terms, offenders would be “brought to Fairness” instead.

Validus, a small high school opened during the Bloomberg administration, is one of a number of city schools using restorative justice practices like student justice panels that are meant to provide useful alternatives to punitive discipline.

For the past few years, the Department of Education has been quietly building its capacity to implement restorative justice programs. Most recently, the department’s Office of Safety and Youth Development verbally committed to expanding the programs next year by providing funding that would allow schools to hire restorative justice coordinators and train staff members.

Though the number of schools involved and the dollar amount each would receive have yet to be determined, a proposal presented by the New York chapter of the Dignity in Schools Campaign last December outlines an $8.75 million investment: a pilot cohort of 10 schools, each receiving $175,000 annually for five years.

That would be a significant step in a citywide shift toward restorative justice that Chancellor Carmen Fariña promoted in May, and Mayor Bill de Blasio called for as public advocate.

A closer look at restorative justice in action reveals the challenges the city is likely to face in spreading these programs. The schools currently using restorative approaches tend to be small, young, and emphasize social-emotional learning. Educators at these schools say the programs are essential to creating a safer, more respectful environment. But for an expansion to work, other schools must commit to rethinking the “why” and “how” of school discipline.

Analyzing the programs in practice

“Restorative justice is about creating new systems where we’re building relationships,” said Anne Looser, a special education teacher at the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, which has a restorative justice program. “We’re putting supports into place so young people don’t get lost.”

These supports can take the form of student justice panels, peer mediation programs, “restorative circles,” and other methods. They all aim to change students’ offending behaviors and repair damaged relationships through resolutions like writing an apology note or helping out a teacher.

Restorative justice programs at Validus Prep High School in the Bronx include Fairness Committee and a peer mediation program.
PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Restorative justice programs at Validus Prep High School in the Bronx include Fairness Committee and a peer mediation program.

In contrast, restorative justice supporters argue, using suspensions as the universal consequence for behavior incidents further alienates at-risk students and often fails to address the root of their behavioral problems.

Suspensions from city schools decreased 27 percent between 2010 and 2013, though there were still 53,465 suspensions last year. For schools looking to reduce their reliance on punitive discipline, restorative justice programs are meant to provide teachers and students with multiple options for dealing with conflict.

At Validus, the Fairness Committee independently handles a wide range of offenses, from incidents of bullying to small disruptions like violating the cell phone policy. The most severe infractions, such as those involving drugs or weapons, are sent directly to the administration.

Fairness Committee meets once or twice a week, and all students rotate serving as panelists. A teacher facilitator leads the group in discussing the student’s actions and creating resolutions to right the wrong.

Validus also runs a peer mediation program, which art and chemistry teacher Jamie Munkatchy believes has led to changes in the school culture. “There seems to be this sort of tangential effect,” she said. “Because students know there’s a peer mediation program, they seem to just be aware of conflict resolution. They don’t glorify fighting.”

“I think it’s good for teachers too,” said senior Judith Nkwor, who is a peer mediator. “They don’t feel hopeless when they’re dealing with students; they have an option to help them stay focused and make them accountable for their actions.”

At Flushing International High School, the Lyons Community School, and the Bronx Academy of Letters, restorative justice often occurs in “restorative circles”—gatherings where participants sit in a circle to build community through conversation. The schools use circles in classroom discussions, to address discipline issues, to comfort students dealing with trauma, or to reintegrate students into the school after a suspension.

According to Flushing International social worker Tania Romero, the environment at her school “has become much more peaceful.”

This year, Romero added, circles have helped “open up conversations in more meaningful and deeper ways,” allowing students to discuss issues like racism.

At the moment, it’s difficult to judge whether these programs have reduced suspensions. Some schools, such as Lyons, said they do not keep such records, and others, including Validus, Bronx Letters, and Flushing International, would not share these numbers with Chalkbeat. But educators at these schools say that punitive measures have decreased as a result of restorative programs.

They also stress, however, that restorative justice is not intended to replace suspensions entirely.

“Do we use suspensions all the time? Yes. But we have a larger bank of tools,” explained Lyons Principal Taeko Onishi. “Our goal is to make sure in each case that we consider the restorative options before we go another route, or we use them in tandem.”

Taking restorative justice to the next level

Interestingly, many of the schools using restorative justice share certain qualities. Validus, Lyons, Letters, and Flushing International were all founded in the 2000s, maintain a student body under 600, and started restorative justice programs within the past five or so years.

Each school also has a specific focus. The Bronx Academy of Letters emphasizes writing skills, Flushing International works with students who have recently immigrated, and Validus is an Outward Bound expeditionary learning school, for example. In recent years, all have dedicated time and resources to establishing a school climate where communication and support are highly prized to accommodate restorative justice.

To some, scaling up restorative justice programs to very different schools could present challenges.

Creating a culture where educators default to restorative practices instead of suspensions takes time, Munkatchy explained. In fact, it’s still an adjustment at her own school.

“Is insubordination a suspendable offense?” she asked. “If a kid says ‘f— you,’ at the moment, seven or eight of our faculty will say it’s a suspendable offense. I feel like that is a really poor relationship between a kid and an adult.”

Art and chemistry teacher Jamie Munkatchy runs the Fairness Committee at Validus Prep.
PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Art and chemistry teacher Jamie Munkatchy runs the Fairness Committee at Validus Prep.

Getting students to buy in to the programs is another hurdle, one that Onishi said took years to overcome at Lyons. But now, if a new student doesn’t take restorative justice seriously, “I’ll get the coolest 11th grader to come tell them to buy in,” she said.

Looser, the special education teacher at Letters, formerly taught at Lehman High in the Bronx, a school of about 2,000 students that was nearly shut down by the city in 2012 and again in 2013.

Lehman ran a mentoring program that paired seniors with freshmen, and a number of teachers were trained in restorative justice practices. But “because the school was going through so much turmoil, there was constant interruption of consistency of service,” Looser said.

Yet the size of the school itself was not an issue, she said. If anything, it was easier to gather a pool of teachers for training since the staff was so large. A larger faculty would also mean less time and effort required from individual teachers to support restorative justice.

For now, the scope of the department’s commitment to expanding restorative justice to additional schools is uncertain. But the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a nonprofit focused on discipline reform, has a clear a long-term vision: a restorative justice coordinator at every school in the city.

Instead of teachers volunteering to organize different aspects of a restorative justice program, as is the case at Validus, a single staff member would organize the program holistically. This coordinator would also be responsible for tracking and analyzing statistics that could show the programs’ effectiveness.

“It is not an impossible task,” said Shoshi Chowdhury, a campaign coordinator for Dignity in Schools. “But the administration has to be on board.”

The city would not comment directly on its plans to expand restorative justice programs or provide the number of existing programs across the city. A spokeswoman said the department has been meeting with community groups and principals to discuss alternative forms of discipline. Reducing reliance on suspensions is “a top priority for Chancellor Fariña,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.

Looking at the big picture

School discipline reform is gaining momentum nationwide, with restorative justice practices taking hold in Oakland, Calif. and other school districts. In January, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder announced a set of guidelines meant for “improving school climate and discipline,” the first such guidelines released on a federal level.

Back in New York, the department is poised to significantly change the way it disciplines its students. “Under the Bloomberg administration, with the very, sort of, heavy emphasis on accountability, there was a lot of breakdown of trust necessary to make the school system function in the best way it can function,” Morningside Center Deputy Executive Director Tala Manassah said, though she noted that some Bloomberg-era officials were supportive of restorative justice.

Over the past few years, the Department of Education has sent teachers from 55 middle and high schools to receive training in restorative approaches from the Morningside Center, which will be training 45 more schools this July and plans to add another 45 in the fall.

Fariña’s administration, she believes, “has already shown itself to be extremely aligned with this kind of work.”

Still, Onishi cautioned that restorative justice is not an immediate fix-all.

“Saying, ‘The kid cursed at me yesterday, did restorative justice, and cursed at me tomorrow’ is not a fair way to measure its success,” she explained. “Our goal is not for you to suddenly be good. Our hope is that the behavior is less severe and it happens less frequently. It’s a progression.”

Later this week, Chalkbeat will publish an in-depth look at suspension policies in New York City schools. Sign up for our morning newsletter to stay in the loop.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.