With Liberty and Restorative Justice for All

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

There’s a reason they’re called “hard conversations” (or, courageous conversations if euphemisms are your thing). Recently, several Nashville educators traveled to Chicago to do just that — have hard conversations with other inner-city educators about a growing epidemic: The over suspension and expulsion of African-American males.

Although I serve in a school with a 90% African-American demographic, I couldn’t think of a more fitting setting to discuss the plight of the young men I have sworn to educate and graduate. Both Chicago and its public school system have becrico and ryanome synonymous with violence, fear and uncertainty. The city’s once industrial and professional-sports stronghold has slipped into a hotbed of urban warfare, unrelenting gang violence and a school system on its heels. While East Nashville’s poverty and crime rate may only reflect a shade of Chicago’s Southside, our similarities and setbacks are next of kin. Where the Windy City has been one of our Nation’s metropolis hallmarks, Nashville, on the other hand, is on a meteoric rise, exponentially expanding in nearly every worthwhile metric, fueling the Music City-zeitgeist that expects Nashville to surpass Austin, Charlotte, Portland and Denver in overall population over the next 20 years (nashvillempo.org).

Peeling the proverbial onion

Nashville’s growth has not been without its share of growing pains. These pains have understandably impacted our school system but specifically our low socioeconomic schools — schools such as Maplewood High, where I serve. Under the microscope these pains look like truancy, aggression, apathy, fear and so many more behavioral manifestations that are a direct result of a city and its communities struggling to carve out its evolving identity. These growing pains have thus put leadership as a crossroads. Do we (should we, why would we) combat new as well as historic challenges with antiquated, ineffective methods?

Treating the disease

There’s a metanoia taking hold, a spiritual conversion of sorts as educators across the country are beginning to rethink the imperativeness of social-emotional learning (SEL). The cornerstone of this metanoia is a process called Restorative Justice, a counseling-based approach to impacting systemic behavioral change. In a nutshell, restorative justice is tied to authentic relationships and leverages the embedded trust between the counselors and the counseled, the lynchpin being the ability to inspire deeper learning and understanding through hard yet compassionate conversations.

So, an empathy-based process designed to heal instead of hurt — what’s not to love? The ironic reality for many adults is emotion trumps logic. Too many times our unbridled craving for a pound of flesh blinds us from our true purpose: understanding, growing, healing. Thankfully, there’s a growing number of forward-thinking educators who are determined to graduate from the Spanish Inquisition methodology of school discipline and courageous enough to confront ignorance and familiarity in order to park systemic change.

The catalyst for this meaningful change is our willingness to have the hard conversations. Too often the easy alternative is to suspend or expel students, temporarily removing the problem while satisfying our own vengeful bloodlust through instant gratification. Hard conversations are, in fact, much more courageous. During these talks all parties’ paradigms and beliefs get tested. With no Dr. Phil to facilitate a televised Kumbaya, involved parties rely on shaky trust and, for the most part, unproven outcomes. Therefore, the initial heavy-lifting falls on those courageous leaders and trailblazers whose foresight, commitment and unwavering faith propels them further and further into the restorative justice wilderness.

As Nashville Public Schools officially embraces the restorative justice model (and more importantly, mindset), it has taken a handful of courageous change agents at every level, from Central Office to each school tier and their respective support personnel, to beta test this cutting-edge approach. Educators like Tony Majors (@tmajors29), Dr. Ron L. Woodard (@Champion4Chldrn), Dr. Keely Jones-Mason (@DrJonesMason), Dr. Timothy Drinkwine (@Drizzinkwine), Julie Travis (@JrHtravis) and Lindsay Allison (@longhorndonkey) have vested themselves in not only the process but the ideology of changing lives through empathy-based dialogue.

Remission

Whether it’s Nashville, Chicago or Washington DC, I have personally experienced the impact of restorative justice in diverse settings to willfully adopt this metanoia-mindset. I have seen the model manipulated into various forms, from peace circles to peer juries, from love and logic to transition task forces; however, the staple throughout is clear: relationships and rapport remain at the heart of education. Our innate need to belong is only heightened in the face of crisis, which reminds me of a poignant lesson I picked-up while learning from educators in Guangzhou, China. See, the Chinese view crisis as danger meets opportunity, a sharp contrast from the American paradigm of batten down the hatches — it’s us versus them. Yet, the truth is we treat juvenile delinquency as mini-crises and too often overlook or outright ignore the prime opportunities placed before us. We are dabbling in Dweck’s Growth Mindset here but the fact remains, when faced with student discipline, approach it as an opportunity to build someone up, cementing a foundation of imperative belonging while simultaneously teaching empathy to students (even adults) who were never taught this humanity-based skill. I know Eric Jensen would agree that not only must empathy be taught but restorative justice serves as the perfect lesson plan.

In deed, restorative justice lends itself to both organizational and behavioral change, the latter admittedly one of the toughest changes to implement, but as educators — frontline synapse warriors — it’s our sworn duty, our life’s work to reach and teach the whole child. I almost hesitate using the aforementioned expression because its liberal use has turned a legitimate decree into a throwaway cliche. Nonetheless, a great educator does just that, taking on the overarching responsibility of developing a well-rounded, future-ready young person.

Now, allow me to have the hard conversation with you. Going forward, as educators, lead learners, catalysts (pick your moniker), can we afford to adhere to mindless, dare I say barbaric approaches to resolving student-centered conflict? Are we merely too simple, or worse, too insensitive to embrace a mindset which would have us focus our energy and efforts on healing instead of hurting, restoring instead of ravaging — loving instead of leaving?

Well…

9 thoughts on “With Liberty and Restorative Justice for All

  1. While I agree with the idea of improving social emotional learning, I am also concerned for the unnoticed 90%. Too often in education we make policies and develop practices aimed at impacting some 10% of our student population. For instance, 90% of Metro students do not have issues with truancy, suspension, expulsions or other major behavior based interventions. This policy is aimed at dealing with the 10% that do, and keeping them in the instructional space and in school. That is not bad except for the elephant in the room, which is that those students have this issues for a reason. They are often the most disruptive and violent members of a student population. What impact will this policy, aimed at the 10%, have on the other 90%. How many times will a student get jumped by another, who should have already been expelled that year, before we begin to wonder about the impact on them?

    I am not saying “don’t look out for the 10%. Let them fail!”, not all all. However, I think we have to measure these initiatives with a healthy consideration for the other students that will be indirectly impacted. A student I taught last year, a straight A honors students, was assaulted in the hall for no reason, that anyone has been able to find, by a student that should have been expelled. The assault broke his pallet and knocked out 4 teeth. He was out of school for almost a month and his family had to pay thousands of dollars in medical bills. Where is the justice to restore that child’s feeling of safety in school? Where is the policy protecting him from violence and abuse? Well…

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  2. I should also say, least I sound crazed, that I think OSS for things like truancy or dress code violations are absurd. My concern is with truly disruptive or violent behavior, such as assaulting students, absolute disruption in a classroom that becomes unmanage by any of the students teachers, drug distribution and so on. I am all about getting rid of zero tolerance policies, and having a discipline system that is build around our primary focus, education, just as long as it is measured against the well being of the 90%.

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    • Aggravated assault is unacceptable whether provoked or unprovoked. Ultimately ,we are dealing with the disproportionate discipline measures of an entire demographic based on their white counterparts — that’s the true elephant in the room.

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      • I am not in an admin role, but I am aware of the idea. I have not seen much of the data. Are we seeing a disparity simply in the total numbers, or in the way admins react to the same action? Are we just quicker to suspend black students for things like dress code, or do they commit more severe infractions that require harsher interventions?

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  3. You have hit on a very important topic that I deal with everyday. Our suspensions are disproportionately African American males. I am always trying to balance restorative justice and mediation with OSS. I know that OSS does not help our children improve. Unfortunately, we also have some young students that are extremely violent and become a danger to themselves and others in the classroom. The tough thing I find is that the kids that need our help the most are the ones that have the most difficult time in the regular classroom environment. It becomes a Catch 22. Keep the students in the room as much as possible so as to build up their skill set but at the same time the safety of the other students is at great risk. We have had instances this year where we have had to essentially wait until a student became aggressive to the point that they hurt someone until we remove them or have them attend an alternate location. I struggle with this everyday. Keep fighting the fight my friend!

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  4. Great piece Ryan! When students consistently get in trouble, who will be the person to reach out to them and try something new other than blind punishment? I would recommend anyone interested in this selection check out “Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most by Jeffrey Benson. I was lucky enough to have him on my podcast @ principallyspeaking.com after reading his book.

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  5. I love everything about Restorative Justice except how it was instituted at a school where I taught. Nothing about the vision of the program was followed either in spirit or in practice. Circles were used as a tool to discipline teachers. I left the school soon after realizing this. Then the assistant principal was let go. Then the principal was fired. Sad that an excellent program could be corrupted by unethical administrators.
    Spread the good work about Restorative Practices.
    If practices are truly restorative, they can be a school’s salvation.

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