Alexandria students push for alternatives to suspension

Although Alexandria schools officials have agreed to implement a restorative justice pilot program at T.C. Williams High School this year in an effort to deal with the racially lopsided results of its school discipline policies, the program has yet to begin, leaving some students frustrated.

A group of student advocates that in recent years has pushed for alternative approaches to school discipline want the program, which focuses less on punishment and more on repairing harm done in school incidents. The students are responding to statistics that show African American and Latino students are suspended at far higher rates than their white classmates: In the 2010-11 school year, for every white student who received a short-term suspension — usually for a minor, nonviolent offense — five African American and nearly three Latino classmates were suspended.

More time out of school means more catching up for students and a greater likelihood of dropping out of school.

Advocates for alternatives say schools should aim to educate, not set students back.

“I think school can be a place where you learn from your mistakes,” said Ana Diaz, 16, a junior at T.C. Williams. “We should be taught how to be a better person and how to do things better. [It should not be] a place where you did something wrong and so you got kicked out.”

But midway through the school year, the pilot hasn’t started.

Kelly Alexander, a spokeswoman for Alexandria schools, said officials agree with the principles of restorative justice and are committed to introducing it at the high school. “We are attempting to gather good information before we take the next steps,” she said.

Alexander said one thing the system is looking at is how such approaches have worked in other places. A meeting is scheduled this month to discuss the program, she said.

Restorative justice often involves students, educators and parents sitting down with a mediator to talk about an incident and determine an appropriate response. Ideally, students can be held accountable for their actions but also address the root cause of the conflict.

School systems are increasingly exploring alternative discipline models as the zero-
tolerance policies that became popular across the country in the 1990s face more scrutiny for offering blunt punishments that don’t always fit the crime.

Schools in Denver; Oakland, Calif.; and Portland, Ore., are using restorative justice. In Fairfax County, administrators at each middle school and high school have been trained during the past two years in restorative justice techniques and in identifying the types of incidents where they might be used.

Kim Dockery, assistant superintendent for special services at Fairfax County Public Schools, said restorative justice is more proactive than a typical suspension.

“The idea is you are getting some dialogue around behavior change,” she said. “It’s much better than putting a student out of school and having them come back with the same anger and the same issues.”

Dockery said restorative justice is a very intensive approach that requires much more time, resources and training to ensure that it is applied effectively and uniformly throughout the school system.

In Alexandria, the push for restorative justice came out of a longer campaign for improved academic opportunities for black and Latino students.

Tenants and Workers United, an advocacy group with an active youth group in Alexandria, published a report in 2007 that highlighted disparities in the school system, including discipline rates.

In 2010, the group requested new data about school discipline. A resulting school system report showed that African American students, who make up just over a third of enrollment, represented 63 percent of disciplinary referrals in the 2010-11 school year. White students, a quarter of the enrollment, had 10 percent of the disciplinary referrals.

The report bolstered calls for a new approach.

Alexandria School Board member William E. Campbell said he agrees that the school system needs to be revamped, partly because of the high number of students who are suspended more than once.

“It is a clear indication that you are not getting to the root of the problem,” Campbell said. “And we are not changing habits so they are not getting suspended again.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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