A Fascinating Way to Put a Stop to the School-to-Prison Pipeline for Black Children
Destiny was in eighth grade when, in the middle of an altercation with another student, she grabbed a teacher’s jacket and threw it out of a classroom window.
She was enrolled at the Lyons Community School in Brooklyn, N.Y., where almost every kid is black or Latino and living in poverty. Only five percent are meeting standards in math and reading.
New federal data shows that across the United States, schools with demographics like these tend to respond to bad behavior with aggressive force. Principals put students as young as four years old into isolation rooms or suspension, kicking them off campus for days or even weeks at a time. School-based police officers — in New York City there are more of them than there are school psychologists or social workers — sometimes respond to offenses as trivial as talking back to a teacher with physical restraints or even arrest.
But Destiny was not isolated, suspended or arrested. She wasn’t even sent to detention. Instead, wearing gold hoop earrings and a t-shirt with a big pink heart, she appeared, a little jittery, before a “justice panel” of four teenage peers. They listened to Destiny’s side of the story (she didn’t know the jacket belonged to the teacher, she said) and determined her punishment: a face-to-face apology to the teacher, two days of community service cleaning up her classroom during lunch, and a follow-up conference with the peer panel to discuss what she had learned from the incident.
As depicted in a 2013 documentary called "Growing Fairness," Destiny accepted her sentence without complaint. An adult dean supervised the proceedings, but did not intervene.
These new kid courts, in which students are empowered to set school rules and mete out the punishments for breaking them, are sometimes called “restorative justice.” The concept, borrowed from the world of legal mediation, shows real evidence of working in schools. Using restorative tactics, Lyons decreased its suspension rate by more than 20 percent since 2008.
Now Lyons is part of a growing national movement of educators offering a practical alternative to harsh “zero tolerance” school discipline policies, which proliferated in the wake of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. Though the Columbine massacre was perpetrated by two white students at a majority-white, suburban school, it is urban students of color who have shouldered the heaviest burdens of the zero-tolerance push. Those kids have the most to gain from radically upending how school discipline gets done.
There is data to back up what activists call the “school-to-prison pipeline”: 20 percent of black boys and 12 percent of black girls are suspended from school each year in the United States, compared to six percent of white boys and two percent of white girls. 95 percent of those school suspensions are for non-violent offences like verbally disrupting class. Yet once suspended, students experience academic delays and become twice as likely to drop out, get involved in street violence, then get sucked into the criminal justice system.
It’s easy to assume that the vast racial disparity in U.S. school discipline has a lot to do with the tumultuous home lives of students living in poverty, who then “act out” in the classroom. A new study in the Journal of Criminal Justice shows that the black-white gap in suspensions can be explained, in part, by black students’ lengthier records of small-bore misbehavior before they ever get suspended.
But the discrepancy between black and white suspension rates can’t be fully explained away with children’s home lives. Investigations by the Obama administration found that some school districts are nakedly applying one set of rules to middle-class white kids who use profanity or disrupt class (lots of second chances) while black children who commit the same misdeeds are three times as likely to get kicked off campus after just one incident.
Two lions of the liberal blogosphere, Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates, have lately been arguing over whether intergenerational African American poverty is, at least in part, caused by culture. Chait, who takes the Daniel Patrick Moynihan “culture of poverty” view, has cited as proof the KIPP charter schools, which employ strict “no excuses” discipline tactics. KIPP, Chait writes, is successful because it teaches poor kids “middle class norms.”
It’s true that many KIPP schools are academically stellar, which has a lot to do with their extended school day and intense focus on college planning. But it’s difficult to imagine large numbers of middle-class parents ever accepting the disciplinary strategies popular at “no excuses” schools like KIPP: students marching through the hallways in military silence, required to sit with their limbs arranged just-so and with their eyes constantly locked on the teacher; and, in one KIPP school, isolating misbehaving children in a padded, windowless chamber the size of a walk-in closet, for up to 20 minutes at a time.
Those strategies do not reflect middle-class child-rearing norms. Research by the sociologist Annette Lareau shows that middle-class and affluent parents expect schools to approach student discipline in much the same way such parents do at home: by allowing kids to explain their side of the story and then negotiate a fair set of consequences.
Doesn’t that sound like Destiny’s experience in front of the kid court? It turns out middle-class parents and schools are already using “restorative practices” as a matter of course, but without the activist, touchy-feely jargon.
Last year the National Institute of Health announced the first randomized study of these strategies, which will help policy-makers figure out if they live up to advocates’ hype. In the meantime, the Obama administration has asked states and schools to make suspensions and expulsions a last resort. Mayors and school boards in Denver, Buffalo, Fort Lauderdale, New York City and Newark are exploring how to help teachers and principals shift from zero tolerance to disciplinary routines that keep troubled students in the classroom, where they are safest and able to learn the most.
That will help make sure that every kid — not just rich white kids — gets the opportunity to earn a second chance.