Schools Find Justice Panels More Effective Than Suspending Students

On a Monday afternoon, Kemi Karim, a 10th-grader at Lyons Community School in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was asked to step out of class by a school administrator. Though some students would have registered concern at such a request, Karim wasn’t worried.

“I'm a goody two-shoes,” she said. “I never get in trouble.”

Karim was serving on that day’s “justice panel,” a rotating group of students addressing disciplinary incidents in the school. She headed to an empty classroom where three more students later joined her: 10th-grader Ezequiel Collado and 12th-graders, Rolman Guzman and Shanice Green.

The case before the students involved an eighth-grader who had smeared a roll covered in sauce over a sixth-grader’s face during lunch. The panel’s task was to investigate the incident and recommend a “consequence”—a way for the eighth-grader to make up for her behavior.

The idea of repairing harm is central to restorative justice, a concept that drives justice panels such as the one at Lyons. The goal is for students to accept responsibility for their behavior and make amends by apologizing, resolving differences through dialogue and doing community service. The school holds such panels at least twice a week.

Located in an untrendy stretch between Williamsburg, Bushwick and Greenpoint, Lyons serves around 500 students who are overwhelmingly poor and 90 percent African American and Hispanic. Lyons, a 6- to 12-grade school that is nearly 25 percent special needs, is one of at least four schools in New York City testing justice panels as an alternative to suspending students.

School suspensions have been on the rise in New York City since 2000. In the school year 2012-'13, schools suspended over 50,000 of their 1.1 million students. That’s double the number of those suspended in 2001-02. Meanwhile, enrollment in those years fell.

Unequal Discipline   

Children’s advocates, teachers and principals have long argued that suspensions are ineffective at improving student behavior, a belief endorsed in a 2008 report by members of the American Psychological Association. A 2011 study in Texas found that one suspension more often that not leads to many more; students who are suspended are also more likely to drop out of school, break the law and eventually end up in jail.

By using justice panels, student mentoring and peer-led conflict resolution, schools such as Lyons are trying to turn suspensions, which are now the most common disciplinary tool, into a last resort.

When Taeko Onishi founded Lyons seven years ago, she planned to use suspensions sparingly. “They [the students] interpreted that as, ‘Oh, we can do what we want to do,’” she said. So, despite its best intentions, the school ended up suspending a lot of students. In 2008-'09, its second year, Lyons suspended 22 percent of its students, more than three times the city’s average of 6 percent.

“We had to change what we were doing,” said Onishi. “[So] we created a culture where suspensions wouldn’t be a solution.” Now, student mentors work with younger students in need of individual guidance; peer-mediators break up arguments and resolve conflicts; justice panels made up of students investigate instances of misbehaver and decide how a student can compensate for it. The result: by 2011-'12, Lyons’ suspension rate had dropped to 3 percent.

“This automatic response we have gotten into, get the bad kids out so the good kids can learn – get the bad kids out to where?” said Judith Kaye, a former chief judge for the state of New York. Kaye, who believes frequent suspensions can spur the “school to prison pipeline,” launched an independent task force in 2011 that focused on keeping students in the classroom and out of the courtroom.

“Kids should not be fighting in school, kids should not be talking back, kids should not be stealing from lockers,” said Kaye. “There should be some accountability for all misbehavior. But it’s just that we don’t need to do it so abusively and destructively and particularly so disproportionately.”

According to the task force’s report, suspensions and school-related arrests spiked after the '90s, when national pressure was on to implement “zero tolerance.” Originally designed to help fight drugs and gun violence in schools, the policy was increasingly used against children who broke minor rules.

Numbers from the New York City Department of Education show that suspensions are disproportionately given to black students and those with special needs. This is true across the U.S., according to a recent report from the Federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Far from Perfect

In the last three years, however, suspensions have declined in New York City. Advocates claim that restorative justice, and similar efforts at “positive discipline” are one reason for the drop. They also believe such alternatives are more effective.

“It’s not like we are giving the students leeway,” said Karim, who served on the justice panel several times. “It’s kind of like a second chance because a lot of the time when we bring kids to justice panel, they actually realize what they did wrong and they change and they don’t do it again.”

But restorative justice comes with its own difficulties. The student must take responsibility for his or her actions. Without such an acknowledgement, the panel cannot do what it does—find out the reason for the student’s misbehavior.

The eighth-grader who was supposed to appear for assaulting another student with a bread roll ended up sneaking out of school. So the panel interviewed the victim, sixth-grader Amari Johnson, who claimed she had done nothing to provoke the smearing incident. She hadn’t retaliated either, something the panel applauded.

“I understand the fact that she smeared sauce in your face, but if you would have reacted you would also be served consequences,” said Karim.

“It’s good that you didn’t react with violence because violence is bad,” added Collado. Recognizing that Johnson had controlled her emotions, they even clapped for her.

“We are proud of you for being responsible,” said Karim. “So don’t feel so bad.” Blushing at the unexpected praise, Johnson returned to class.

This was the second time the eighth-grader had avoided appearing before a justice panel. “She’s been cutting school all the time,” said Darron Burgos, Lyons’ dean of students. “I called her family. No one came.”

Though restorative justice has many fans, some question aspects of the approach. Janelle Stanley, a social worker at Harlem Renaissance High School, believes restorative justice “forces intimacy” by expecting a student to discuss what prompted his or her misbehavior.

Sometimes, she explained, students don’t want to discuss their feelings and adults should respect that. “If they think they need to hold it in, I can’t force myself through that,” she said, referring to how she works with students who have disrupted class or broken rules. Instead, she recommends closely monitoring students’ behavior and working with them one-on-one. She calls this program Suspension Alternatives, and uses it at her high school, a transfer school in East Harlem.

But, Stanley admitted, no matter how many alternatives schools use, there will always be instances when they cannot avoid suspending a student.

Onishi agreed. “The goal is not to reduce suspensions,” Onishi said. “The goal is to help our kids and suspensions don’t help them.” There are times, she added, when suspension is an “effective tool.” But only if students are invested in the school: “If a kid doesn’t feel like they want to be someplace, suspensions don’t work.”

That’s the tough part, according to Onishi. “Too many schools are not engaging the kids,” she said. She believes it’s up to the school to build relationships with students that are strong enough to weather suspensions.

“How do you work with them when they are gone? And how do you work with them when they are back?” she asked.“We see tons of success stories but we also see tons of things that aren’t working. You can’t give up because it isn’t working well. You have to keep at it.”

Students at Lyons feel just as strongly about restorative justice.Carmen, a 12th-grader, said it turned her life around. She was arrested twice when she was a seventh-grader at Lyons. She and her friends had got into serious physical fights with a rival group of girls from school.

“I fought just to fight sometimes,” Carmen said. She never went to jail because assault charges were dropped both times. But she went to an alternate learning center (ALC), a school for public school students who are suspended for more than six days. The second time she was arrested she was also sent to the Greenpoint Youth Court, a local community justice center built on ideals of restorative justice. Around the same time, Lyons had started to implement restorative justice, too. That, Carmen said, was a turning point.

“When they sat me down and spoke to me about it, then I started to realize and understand that I cannot do stuff like that because it was not only hurting me,” she said. “It was hurting my school and it was hurting my mom.”

In the five years since, Carmen has become a mentor for students who get into trouble. She volunteered at the Greenpoint Youth Court throughout because she believes in its efforts to help students like her (it closed in May 2014 for administrative reasons). She is also a regular member of Lyons’ justice panel. She thinks of Taeko Onishi as her best friend.

“But don’t tell her I said that,” she added, blushing slightly.

A longer version of this story originally appeared at

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