For most of this decade, and the previous decade, punishment in schools has not only been considered separate from criminal justice policy, but has also been all about retribution: suspension, expulsion, demerits, etc.
Both approaches involve a narrow definition of justice. Restorative justice is far more promising, and attempts to reconcile the abused and the abuser rather than simply punish the latter. Certainly, the notion of restorative justice becomes complicated and difficult to defend when the abused had a loved one murdered, and the abuser was the assailant. But in cases where the two or more parties are in schoolyard squabbles and scuffles, restorative justice offers more opportunities to students and educators.
On one front, two kids have the ability to mend divisions. This is especially important in areas such as Chicago or Detroit where gang affiliation starts early in a child’s life and often limits their future. Realistically, schoolyard problems can become the kind of heated and intensely violent affairs which warrant a response from police rather than the school principal.
Retributive justice, which surely makes us feel better when we’re the victims of the crime, does little to correct the situation in aggregate. The problem between one or more children still exists. No bonds have been created. And children can’t be imprisoned for spitballs and wedgies, which leaves educators with limited options like expulsion, or kicking the child out of school.
A majority of programs in urban areas, which seek to reduce gang crime, and keep children safe, often include after school programs which unfortunately have been cut with many localities under fiscal distress. The objective is to keep children in school. So why are so many policies directed at children kicking them out of school?
Education policy and criminal policy are linked. More educated people tend not to rely on criminality. They make for a better society overall.
In our efforts to protect school children from the kind of bullying that has led to highly publicized suicides, we have taken on a rather wrongheaded “tough on crime” approach that does not teach perpetrators not to harm other children emotionally or physically – but rather informs them that the next time they do so it should be outside of the watchful eye of teachers and school officials.
The city of Ypsilanti does not have an apparent problem with discipline at its schools. But, its rate of recidivism is a concern. While elected officials have either been unable or too uninformed to make the connection between education policy and criminal justice policy, others like California Attorney General Kamala Harris have. She and others in California have started to adopt restorative justice programs for California prisons. There, the calculus may be a bit more economic. The state’s prisons have started to overflow.
It shouldn’t take overfilled prisons to prompt the community to act in Ypsilanti. At a forum held in January, which coincided with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, City Councilwoman Lois Richardson discussed the problem of recidivism in Washtenaw County. Washtenaw County has the highest rate of recidivism in the state of Michigan. It appeared, as she described it, as an intractable problem.
Restorative justice can be entered into the prison system, but first, it should be entered into schools – where experimentation can take place and the stakes are not as high. Especially since restorative justice programs have been shown to reduce the chance of troublemaking by those who have been introduced to its methods.
Schools in Oakland, California are known for their embrace of restorative justice, and the approach to school problems has been used in Chicago, Illinois and other major cities.