discipline policy

City preparing to expand restorative justice programs

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter

The city is poised to dramatically expand restorative justice programs aimed at improving school climate and rethinking school discipline next year.

The head of the Department of Education’s Office of Safety and Youth Development verbally committed to provide new support for restorative justice programs at a May meeting about school discipline issues, according to two attendees. Though few details of the expansion have been finalized, the agreement represents the administration’s first step toward enacting discipline policy changes that Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio have both called for.

On Friday, a department spokeswoman said officials had been consulting with a number of organizations focused on school discipline, including Dignity in Schools. The New York chapter has been meeting monthly with the safety office to create a plan that would begin in January 2015, according to Elana Eisen-Markowitz, a teacher at the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters who attended the May meeting.

As opposed to punitive policies like suspension, restorative justice programs such as peer mediation and student justice panels look to change students’ behaviors. Restorative practices often end with resolutions meant to repair relationships, like writing an apology note or helping out a teacher.

Restorative justice is not about trying to replace suspensions entirely, educators stress, but instead about “creating space to support a positive school environment,” as Dignity in Schools Campaign Coordinator Shoshi Chowdhury said.

Implementing these programs school-wide requires funding and training. Dignity in School’s December 2013 proposal outlines a pilot program that would involve 10 schools, each of which would receive $175,000 annually for five years. The money would be used to hire and train restorative justice coordinators and support training for school staff members.

At the May meeting, safety office head Elayna Konstan did not agree to specific dollar amounts, but did suggest increasing the number of schools involved to 20, according to Eisen-Markowitz.

Over the past few years, the Department of Education has been building its capacity to implement restorative justice programs. The department has provided training to teachers from 55 middle and high schools through the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, which will be training 45 more schools this July and plans to add another 45 in the fall.

At Flushing International High School, where students hail from over 40 countries, social worker Tania Romero said that restorative practices have decreased incidences of violence between students of different nationalities and allowed for deeper conversations on issues like racism.

“All schools should be entitled to this,” she said.

The details of the current plan—including how schools will be selected and the amount of funding each school will receive—have yet to be finalized. Chowdhury said her organization is hoping to hear a definite plan within the next month.

Ultimately, Dignity in Schools wants to see a restorative justice coordinator at every school in the city. “We understand that overhauling takes time,” Chowdhury said. “It’s not going to happen in a year or two years.”

The Dignity in Schools proposal describes the restorative justice coordinator as a full-time employee tasked with “the sole focus of coordinating a positive, restorative climate and approach to discipline at the school.” The coordinator would implement a mix of restorative justice programs, train school staff, involve students and parents, and collect data to determine program effectiveness.

The department would not comment directly on the restorative justice expansion or provide the number of existing programs citywide. In a statement, a department spokeswoman said that “Identifying alternatives that reduce the need for suspensions is a top priority for Chancellor Fariña.”

She said that the department has been meeting with Dignity in Schools, the NYCLU, the Osborne Association, Urban Youth Collaborative, as well as with Judith Kaye, New York state’s former chief judge who has worked extensively on restorative and juvenile justice efforts, and school principals.

De Blasio called for an expansion of the programs as public advocate, and Fariña noted her desire to expand restorative justice in a speech to 600 principals in May, saying, “Our schools are learning places, not suspension places.”

Meanwhile, the James Baldwin School in Chelsea, which runs a number of restorative justice programs, has plans to hire a restorative justice coordinator regardless of the department’s next move.

“We feel like we have the capacity [for restorative justice] among our teaching staff,” explained Principal Brady Smith. “The piece we feel like we need to enhance is that point person.”

Next week, Chalkbeat will publish in-depth looks at restorative justice programs and suspension policies in New York City. Stay in the loop by signing up for our morning newsletter.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede