Reaching for Restorative Justice Programs in Public Schools
Since embracing restorative justice programs, San Francisco schools have seen a drop in school violence and improved behavior in class.
In restorative justice, you have to actually have the offender and the victim sit down and discuss what happened and how the offender can make it better.
Instead of being kicked out for fighting, stealing, talking back, or other disruptive behavior, public school students in San Francisco are being asked to listen to each other, write letters of apology, work out solutions with the help of parents and educators, or engage in community service. All these practices fall under the umbrella of “restorative justice”—asking wrongdoers to make amends before resorting to punishment.
Restorative justice programs launched in 2009 when the San Francisco Board of Education passed a resolution for schools to find alternatives to suspension and expulsion. In the previous seven years, suspensions in San Francisco spiked by 152 percent, to a total of 4,341—mostly among African Americans, who despite being one-tenth of the district made up half of suspensions and more than half of expulsions.
This disparity fed larger social inequalities: Two decades of national studies have found that expelled or suspended students are vastly more likely to drop out of school or end up in jail than those who face other kinds of consequences for their actions.
“My first act as a school board member was to push a student out of his school,” recalled Jane Kim, a former community organizer who as a member of the Board of Education needed to approve all expulsions.
“That’s not what I expected to do,” she said, especially when it seemed to exacerbate the social inequalities she had pledged to fight in her position.
Board colleague Sandra Lee Fewer said, “Sixty percent of inmates in the San Francisco county jail have been students in the San Francisco public school system, and the majority of them are people of color. We just knew we had to somehow stop this schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline.”
Fewer, along with colleagues Kim–Shree Maufas and Jane Kim, led the three-year process for the board to officially adopt restorative justice. Though the task force charged with implementing the policy received only modest funding, expulsions have fallen 28 percent since its inception. Less serious cases have shown even more success. Non-mandatory referrals for expulsion (those not involving drugs, violence or sexual assault) have plunged 60 percent, and suspensions are down by 35 percent.
Board members and many educators say restorative practices have kept students in school and out of the criminal justice system. “We’re holding kids more accountable than we did before,” said Kim, who now serves on the city’s Board of Supervisors. “In restorative justice, you have to actually have the offender and the victim sit down and discuss what happened and how the offender can make it better.”
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