We are all builders: either of justice and peace or of injustice and war. Given the choice, most attempt to create harmony and equity in the world. However, many have no choice at all in this matter. They are allowed little agency. These are students in many of our primary and secondary level educational systems and incarcerated persons in most of our correctional institutions.
Dignity has a crucial role in creating equitable social systems and in resolving conflict. Most American educational and correctional systems are based on an unequal power dynamic that does not seek a deeper understanding of the others’ perspectives. The ones in charge, the teacher or corrections officer often don’t even realize how they harm. They are given the power to refuse independence in their charges and often rush to judgment. I was one of those educators who felt vindicated when I was considered ‘right’ in conflicts with students, even though the student subsequently learned little from the encounter. It took time and emotional distance for me to realize my folly.
I will relate a true story to make the point more clear. Darin, not his real name, was a boy adrift in systemic dysfunction. Ostensibly, Darin had a lot ‘going for himself’. He was handsome, popular, athletic and possessed above average intelligence. However, his carefree visage belied a mercurial temper ready to defend his honor or a careless whim. He was one of my students. I should have liked him or, at least, taught him despite the chaos swirling around him most of the time. However, that did not happen.
On the very first day of the school year, Darin disrupted my class and that became a recurrent pattern. He resisted my help, humor and, especially my discipline. I talked to other teachers, guidance counselors and administrators regarding Darin’s behavior and lack of educational progress. Calls from school to Darin’s home were often ignored and when answered yielded more frustration than academic benefit for Darin. We all seemed to agree that his home life (with no significant parental supervision) had resulted in the present dilemma, but even home visits to facilitate changes in Darin’s behavior were ineffectual. Eventually, I hoped for his absence so my instruction could proceed without Darin’s interruptions and insolence.
Meetings were held to determine consequences for his verbal outbursts, but Darin most often would not speak, seemingly content to battle a system where the power centers (teachers and administrators) offered him little acknowledgement and/or inclusion. Much to my relief, he was removed from my classroom. I hoped his new science teacher could understand him better, but the window of opportunity for Darin was closing very quickly. Within a month or so, Darin would be fatally injured in an automobile joy ride during one of his frequent school suspensions.
Darin should have been in school, not aimlessly cutting up a farmer’s field. However, he was a victim of parental neglect, social services’ impotence and punitive, “zero tolerance” educational policies that use suspension and expulsion as “deterrents”. Darin was often heard talking to other students during class, but not heard in meetings with teachers and administrators concerning his class disruption. He probably felt, ‘Why should I talk to these people? They don’t accept me for who I am. They think this is all my fault. The system is unfair.’ In real ways, Darin was right.
Even well-intended educators don’t realize how they are part of the problem. Talking back to a teacher / administrator is unacceptable in most schools and often results in escalating, retributive consequences to the student. In most cases, I believe that communication centered on mutual respect for all parties is the best solution to this intractable educational problem. The alternative communication system is based on principles of restorative justice.
Restorative justice has been used since 2007 in selected Oakland, California schools and is currently being incorporated into the educational systems in Chicago, Denver and Portland, Oregon. It “nips problems and violence in the bud” according to Fania Davis, Executive Director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. The program creates closer, franker relationships among students, teachers and administrators. Meanwhile, suspensions went down 84% during 2007 in Oakland and continue to plummet. In the 2012 -2014 school years, Oakland school suspensions fell 74% and violent incidents decreased by 77%. This is particularly beneficial to African-American boys within Oakland’s school system, since they are disproportionately suspended. Restorative justice has been so effective that in 2010 it became instituted system-wide in Oakland.
What makes restorative justice effective? In a few words - dignity for all persons involved. Using a technique borrowed from indigenous tradition, each person involved in a conflict has a turn with the ‘talking piece’, an object that has a special meaning to the group. It moves from person to person tracing a circle. The person holding the talking piece is the only one talking. The holder speaks with respect and from the heart. Everyone else in the circle listens with respect and from the heart. Ms. Davis states it well. “Punitive justice asks only what rule or law was broken, who did it and how they should be punished. It responds to the original harm with more harm. Restorative justice asks who was harmed, what are the needs and obligations of all affected, and how does everyone affected figure out how to heal the harm”. The talking piece is the equalizer, facilitating everyone’s voice to be heard and honored.
When restorative justice is used in educational systems, it respects the rules. Incorporating dignity for all conflicting parties, restorative justice begins the healing process. Moreover, the healing delinks the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ (75% of American inmates are high school dropouts). However, most school districts still rely on exclusionary or punitive discipline. In fact, the use of suspensions has almost doubled since the 1970’s. Expulsions and even school based arrest are increasingly being used to address minor infractions including ‘defiance’ and texting in class. Under this system of discipline too many students aren’t being educated, and too many teachers and administrators spend precious time dealing with the recurrent discipline problems of the same students. Meanwhile, prison construction is a booming industry increasingly more often controlled by private, for-profit corporations.
When educators acknowledge student’s concerns and what they have been through, the learning gets traction. When corrections officers approach people as neither inferior nor superior to them, the inmates often cooperate. The functional part of these effective interactions is the presence of shared dignity between the two opposing parties.
Nelson Mandela said it best. “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” This is the essence of why restorative justice works. It heals and is profoundly inclusive. Most kids can learn, if the conditions are right. Most inmates released from jail can become productive members of a resilient community, if the conditions are right. Let’s make it happen.