First Person

How I went from a restorative justice skeptic to a restorative justice believer

The author Jahira Chambers, right, working with a student.

I’ll admit it. I first wrote off the concept of restorative justice as another passing fad that would distract schools, specifically urban schools, from prioritizing academic achievement.

But last summer, my principal invited me and several colleagues to a five-day seminar to delve into restorative circles and other strategies for dealing with disruptive behavior while fostering an atmosphere of community and trust — without removing students from school. After some self-reflection and spending months putting the strategies into practice, I have become a believer in the promise of this approach.

I am a proud urban educator of young adults who are bright, compassionate, creative, and full of potential. Many of them have experienced some level of trauma that I and many of my colleagues are guilty of overlooking at times. That trauma often serves as a roadblock to their success, impacting their behavior and their ability to concentrate.

When I reflect on my students who have been suspended, many of them have been diagnosed with a learning or emotional disorder, dealt with the murder of friends and family, or have experienced homelessness — all in addition to the consequences of poverty. Removing a student from school does not address these students’ struggles.

Now, I often think of the harm that restorative justice could have prevented throughout my career.

During my first year of teaching, I witnessed an altercation that resulted in a student convulsing. It was a terrifying sight. Importantly, though, this wasn’t caused by one of those brutal student brawls the media tends to sensationalize; it was horseplay between two adolescents that inadvertently escalated.

The scene caused students to cry and gasp in horror. The other teachers in the room froze, and I was immediately outraged at the student who had caused the injury, even though he hadn’t meant to hurt anyone.

Rather than offering empathy, I supported his removal from our school community via suspension. As educators, we have become so overwhelmed trying to manage misbehavior and defiance in our schools that we’ve resorted to methods that reflect our penal system, even when they may not be appropriate to the situation. It is time for a different approach.

This year, my school has scheduled monthly restorative circles. This process humanizes students and teachers, and initiates a rapport built on empathy and compassion. While altercations and suspensions have not completely vanished, our community is stronger and we have been able to de-escalate incidents more easily.

It feels clear to me that transforming school culture requires transforming how we address student behavior. That means reallocating energy and funds to crisis intervention and conflict resolution training for educators, and trauma support for students and adults alike.

We can’t forget that the criminalization of black and Hispanic youth and students with special needs permeates school districts nationally. Despite a reduction in school suspensions in the 2015-16 school year, gaps remain. The New York Civil Liberties Union reported that students with disabilities, who make up about 19 percent of K-12 enrollment in city schools, made up 43 percent of students who had two or more suspensions or removals from class.

Our schools don’t need a surplus of NYPD officers; what we need is to invest in guidance counselors, social workers, teachers, and administrators so they have the resources and skills to manage students’ emotional and social needs.

Restorative justice practices are not a means for excusing student misbehavior or providing misleading data. On the contrary, they are a worthwhile investment in our students’ well-being and development into secure and productive citizens.

Jahira Chambers is a high school educator in Manhattan and a member of Educators for Excellence-New York. She has taught English in Thailand and also serves an adjunct professor for the CUNY College Now program.

First Person

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

PHOTO: Karla Ann Cote/flickr
A white supremacist rally in Charlottesville surrounds a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Debates about monuments honoring Confederate icons and what they represent often come down to one’s view of Civil War history.

Last weekend’s violent gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one protester dead, was started as a rally against removing a statue of Robert E. Lee. It’s one of about 700 Confederate monuments scattered across the eastern half of the country, with a large cluster in Virginia.

It’s no accident that white supremacists chose the site of a Confederate monument to amplify their racial hatred. For them, the statue is a symbol of white superiority over African Americans, who were enslaved in this country until the middle of the Civil War.

In a disturbing irony, these white supremacists understand an aspect of history that I wish my peers understood from their time spent in school. But many casual onlookers don’t grasp the connection between slavery and the Civil War, and the racism rooted in America’s history.

I know because, in my own education in a small town near Charlottesville, teachers rarely connected slavery and racism to the root of the Civil War. 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.

Those who grew up with me mostly see states’ rights as the primary cause of the Civil War, according to a 2011 survey by Pew Research Center. The national fact tank found that two-thirds of people younger than 30 think slavery was not the impetus. Only a third of people 65 and older shared that view.

The survey suggests that today’s students and young adults do not have full knowledge about the complicated relationship between the Confederacy, states’ rights, and slavery. Teachers have a unique opportunity to give a fuller picture of a painful past so that students can counter white supremacy and its inherent racism today.

As famed black writer and social critic James Baldwin put it: “If you don’t know what happened behind you, you’ve no idea what is happening around you.”

Tim Huebner, a Civil War researcher at Rhodes College in Memphis, said his own children’s textbooks accurately describe a complex economy that relied on enslaved people for labor. But in a state like Tennessee, where more classroom resources are spent on math and reading than social studies and history, a lot can get overlooked.

“If we’re not teaching students about the history of our country and the conflicts and struggles we’ve been dealing with, we don’t have the intellectual tools or the culture tools or ethical tools we need in order to deal with the issues that are coming to the surface now,” he told me.

Meanwhile, one look at the constitution of the Confederate States, or a speech given by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens a few days after that constitution was written, would tell you states’ rights were meant to keep black people enslaved for economic gain.

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. (Thomas) Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right.”

Richard Spencer, the Charlottesville march organizer and a University of Virginia graduate, and James Alex Fields, who is charged with killing a woman by driving into a crowd of anti-Nazi demonstrators last weekend, understood too well the connection between slavery, racism and the Civil War.

Derek Weimer, a history teacher who taught the 20-year-old driver at a high school in Kentucky, said he noticed Fields’ fascination with Nazism. Even though teachers are one of several influential voices in a student’s life, he also implied educators have a role to play in shaping worldviews.

“I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country,” Weimer told The Washington Post.

Growing up in a state thick with Civil War history still left me with a misleading education, and it was years before I investigated it for myself. America’s most divisive and deadly war still has ramifications today — and students deserve better history lessons to help interpret the world around them.

Laura Faith Kebede is a reporter for Chalkbeat in Memphis.

First Person

I was a winner in an academically segregated school. Now, I’m driven to advocate for the other side

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson/Indianapolis Star

You notice many things walking the halls of your middle school: Some kids are bigger than you, some are a different gender, some have a different hair color.

At my middle school, it was as easy to notice some kids were not getting the same education as me.

I attended Hamilton Middle School in Denver for three years as a young teenager, and I was in what was known as the IPM Program, or the International Preparatory Magnet program. Essentially, it was the program for kids who were going to succeed.

But naturally, when some children are selected to succeed, others aren’t. At my school, they were the “TAP kids,” or the students in the Traditional Academic Program.

We were divided neatly, I’d even say segregated, along these program lines to the point where we had different classes on different floors. It did not take a patient observer to realize the main floor, where many eighth-grade TAP classes were held, was less resourced than the upper floor, where I had my classes.

When I compared notes years later with a friend in TAP, we realized how much more writing I did in my classes. One example: An outside program once gave every student at the school a box of energy-efficient lightbulbs and shower heads — but only the IPM kids were required to write essays about how to use them to save energy.

From grading standards to locker quality to college encouragement, IPM was clearly the part of the school the Hamilton faculty was paying attention to.

In the years since I attended, Hamilton has changed its programs. George Washington High School, where the International Baccalaureate program has been a popular destination for Hamilton’s IPM students, has opened itself up more, too.

Still, I wonder what happened to my TAP peers, many of whom were my friends, and most of whom came from poorer families.

It’s hard for me to imagine that, after being tracked into the TAP program, most of those students ended up prepared to graduate from college. I wonder how that contributes to the state’s high school graduation rate — one of the lowest in the country.

Now, as a grown man and voting citizen of the great state of Colorado, I’m asking, what can I do for those kids who have fewer resources and for years endure schools that don’t care about them?

For one, I have an electoral fellowship this summer to help lobby for better education policies and support local school board candidates. I have also been working to oppose cuts to federal student aid and rollbacks of civil rights protections for transgender students being proposed or implemented by Betsy DeVos, our U.S. Secretary of Education.

But while those federal issues really matter, it’s the local issues that first inspired me.

We need to look carefully at schools separating their students as fully as my middle school did, and encourage leaders to push for an equitable, challenging education for all, instead of being selective and pushing some students to the wayside.

Marcos Descalzi is a third-year student at the University of Denver studying public policy and a Colorado SFER Action Network summer fellow.