A Bunch Of Awesome High Schoolers Are Transforming the Criminal Justice System

As the number of people attending school in the K-12 grades increases, disciplining uncooperative students has become harder and harder. While the days of corporal punishment are somewhat behind us, schools have been resorting to tougher tactics: zero tolerance. Previously, zero tolerance policies were instituted in schools to combat serious violations, such as possession of a firearm, tobacco, or drugs.

However, the broad zero tolerance policy, now becoming more popular, demands that both major and minor infractions be dealt with at the same level. While teachers and administrators profess their support for this policy because they remove difficult students from school, it often makes it even more difficult for the students committing the infractions to do well in school and actually makes them more likely to be juvenile delinquents or felons going forward. What’s even more is that zero tolerance policies tend to negatively affect minority students, particularly African American males and students with disabilities. As a result of extending expulsion times, some students are never able to catch up with the work they missed, causing them to lag even further behind. Their futures, as a result, look far from promising.

Alternative policies have been suggested, such as early intervention (targeting inappropriate behavior before it becomes violent). However, a rather newer concept is taking shape in some schools in America. Oakland’s Ralph Bunche High School has established a restorative policy approach, encouraging students and faculty to be more frank with each other through “talking circles.” Topics of discussion in these talking circles include assault, racism, and violence. Among other things, young people are encouraged to come up with meaningful reparations and listen to each other without interruption.

The important thing to realize here is that many of these students do not have the parental support or guidance to deal with their emotions, and can therefore act out violently. Damon Smith, now an "A" student at the school, feels he can “go to someone now.”  The talking circles and sessions with full-time restorative policy coordinators unearth sources of violent behavior and depression. For example, after slugging a girl in the face, Jameelah Garry acknowledged her anger problem and attributed it to her brother being killed in a violent shooting. Bringing Oakland’s escalating violence, especially the death of Kiante Campbell, into the conversation has also helped students cope with frustration.

While this is definitely a first step against the zero tolerance policy that most students grow up, it may only be part of the solution. It does not, for example, necessarily work as efficiently with students with disabilities or in situations with power imbalances, like bullying. Restorative policies work the best when the aggressor accepts his/her mistake, which may not always be the case. Additionally, it is difficult to deal with current students who are committing violent acts with a restorative policy, since it ideally works gradually and progressively. Another issue with restorative policies is the willingness of the administration and faculty to engage with the students using a different approach. Since zero tolerance policy has been around for considerably longer, it will be difficult to move schools into a new line of thinking overnight.

I would suggest a combination of restorative policies and other alternative strategies, like violence prevention and early intervention programs for the long run. While zero-tolerance policies seem to be the only way to go at present, perhaps schools can integrate that policy with social workers, guidance counselors, and the child crisis team, so that all school departments can have a holistic understanding of the infraction.

The restorative policy coordinator, Jerome Butler, is being financed by a non-profit Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. While this makes it easier on the school budget in Oakland, not every school has the luxury of being funded by an outside group. Therefore, the effects of restorative policy would change according to the school district in question. With the economy in a sluggish recovery, school budgets might not be able to afford this much needed measure or any other kind of reform in its disciplinary system.

While restorative policy may not be the answer to our prayers, one thing is for sure: zero tolerance policies are working against the welfare of many students. Hopefully a mixture of alternative policies will deliver the promise of a better, more focused education for millions of students going forward.