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As LA Unified shifts $25M away for its police budget, it should also make sure its restorative justice program is sound

Josh Brown | July 20, 2020

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Josh Brown

Since the Los Angeles Unified School Board voted to cut its school police budget by $25 million, activists have been calling for more student support services, such as additional counselors and social workers. Meanwhile, restorative justice programs offer another strategy that could prove useful as we look to soften our schools and move away from punitive discipline policies.

Predicated on the concept that punitive discipline exacerbates the school-to-prison pipeline, restorative justice shifts the discipline from punishment to learning by teaching students the skills needed to repair relationships and avoid conflict.

While restorative justice has been instrumental in creating a healthy environment in my own classroom, I’ve witnessed numerous failed attempts at implementation. I’ve learned that there are a number of steps schools, faculty, and staff must take first in order to leverage restorative practices to address entrenched inequities at their schools and mitigate discipline issues.

Understanding these foundational concepts are essential before we invest any money, time, or resources in programmatic restorative justice training. The recent school closures brought on by the pandemic — and those that will continue into the 2020-21 school year in districts like LAUSD — present a unique opportunity for educators to pause and address ingrained issues and attitudes before implementing restorative practices when school resumes in-person:

We must acknowledge that punitive discipline policies perpetuate systems of oppression. Before I was able to understand the need for restorative practices, I had to recognize that the current discipline model is perpetuating marginalization of our most disadvantaged students. As a teacher of students with special needs, of whom many are also English language learners and are socioeconomically disadvantaged, I’ve seen first-hand the damage of punitive discipline policies. Oscar, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, is the perfect example.

Oscar seemed to always be in trouble. He routinely shouted out in class, talked out of turn, and chatted with his classmates during instruction. In response, teachers would call home, send him to the dean’s office, or send him to another classroom. While he initially exhibited similar behaviors in my classroom, I used restorative justice practices to give Oscar the space to reveal crucial personal information about his situation.

During an activity called community circles, Oscar described how he was one of eight siblings in a two-bedroom apartment, feeling as if he constantly had to fight for attention, space, and resources. Restorative justice circles gave Oscar a forum to express his feelings, receive feedback, and work towards healing injurious behaviors. As a classroom community, we developed coping strategies to deal with the times students felt ignored and to find positive ways to seek attention. Restorative justice circles made Oscar feel heard, which is what he wanted and needed. Together, we strengthened our relationship and Oscar learned new coping skills he can use for the rest of his life.

Teachers must be willing to empower student voice. Restorative practices uniformly reject the notion that the teacher is the sole source of knowledge in the classroom. These practices empower students to take agency and responsibility for their actions, prompting them to co-create solutions and new knowledge with their peers. Since relationship-building is at the heart of restorative practices, school and classroom cultures must valorize student-centered instruction and prioritize learning environments that center community building.

In community circles, I serve only as a participant; this activity is led by and for students. In my classroom, student-centered community circles explore topics such as honesty, personal responsibility, and the power of forgiveness. During one memorable circle about the difference between hearing and listening, Oscar expressed how he felt like he was never heard, let alone listened to at home. Since he lived in a cramped apartment with numerous other siblings, he had to shout or yell to make his voice heard. Without any prompting from me, another student chimed in: “I know how you feel. I live with four brothers too, and I’m the only girl. I don’t feel like they listen to me either. Then I told them how I felt and they started to listen more.”

In that moment, not only did my students become teachers, but they created bonds between each other as they discovered their commonalities. I’ve learned that in order to implement successful restorative justice practices, I have to relinquish control of my classroom to trust and empower my students to co-create the experience together. Since this philosophy of student voice is at the heart of restorative practices, it is essential that educators be willing to empower student agency.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is going to re-allocate $25 million intended for softening our schools and increasing student health and well-being. While restorative justice is already an existing program that should receive additional financial support, schools and educators need to engage in a fundamental cultural and ideological shift around discipline first. In order to implement restorative practices with fidelity, we must have this mindset before we participate in any training, in-service, or coaching.

Josh Brown teaches 10th, 11th, and 12th grade special education at Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley, California. He is a Teach Plus California Policy Fellowship alum and recent graduate of the UCLA Principal Leadership Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @Jabrown100.

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