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Volume 51 Number 4 Fall 2018
Written by Ann Webb Price, Community Evaluation Solutions
In 2018, there were 23 school shootings that took place in high school or college settings resulting in injury or death (Source: https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/02/us/school-shootings-2018-list-trnd/index.html). When looking more specifically at gun violence that takes place at an elementary, middle, or high school, there were 11 cases of school gun violence, making 2018 one of the most violent years to date. The Washington Post study found that approximately 130 students, educators, staff and family members have been killed in assaults during school hours, and another 254 have been injured. Their analysis found that 62.6% of students exposed to gun violence at school since 1999 were children of color, and almost all those shootings were targeted or accidental, rather than random acts of violence. Many people who commit these acts do so with a gun they obtained from their own home or from friends’ or relatives’ homes. Although we might like to believe there is a certain “type” of person who carries out extreme acts of violence in schools, there is no typical shooter and most do not have a mental illness.
Perhaps in large part as a reaction to violence in schools, many US schools have adopted “zero tolerance policies.” These policies apply to even minor infractions to school rules and often result in out-of-school suspension and/or the criminalization of behavior that could be handled within the school setting. Therefore, an unfortunate result for some students is referral to juvenile court and entanglement in the legal process. Most schools today routinely have police present in school in the form of an SRO (School Resource Officer). Some studies have shown that zero tolerance policies disproportionally effect students of color and students with disabilities. Out-of-school time is positively associated with academic failure and decreases a student’s likelihood of graduating from high school. Some have termed the implementation of zero tolerance policies and the disproportionate negative effect on students of color and those with disabilities as “The School to Prison Pipeline” (APA, 2008; Heitzeg, 2009).
Creating Restorative Schools offers an alternative where relationships and the ecology around school is changed. Positive support and practices and an environment where power is shared with students take the place of punitive zero-tolerance practices. When restorative practices (RPs) are fully implemented, according to RJE (Restorative Justice in Education) proponents, the way students, teachers, staff, parents and the larger community relate to one another is transformed. The central tenant is trust and the goal of RJE is to create a just and equitable school that works for all students.
Martha Brown, an experienced educator and nationally recognized Restorative Justice (RJ) consultant, presents an overview of RJ and how it works in practice through the lens of her qualitative study of Grant and Davis, two middle schools in the Oakland Unified School District. Brown begins with a comprehensive yet concise overview of the history of zero tolerance policies then introduces the basic tenets of RJE practices. Using the voice of principals, staff and most importantly students, Brown provides insight into the challenges of changing the culture of a school to shift from traditional and punitive approaches to a RJ approach. The book presents the culmination of her dissertation study in which she uses surveys, observation, key informant interviews and “Circles” in order to enter in and understand how two similar but fundamentally different schools implement Restorative Practices and provides the reader insight into their successes and challenges. Brown presents an impassioned case for changing “the way we do schools” and offers RJE as a solution to many of the problems in public schools today.
Current buzz words and practices in the field of education include “Social and emotional Learning (SEL),” “School Climate,” and “Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS).” Brown discusses SEL and PBIS and explains how RJE is a wholistic method that ideally includes both PBIS and SEL practices. When fully implemented, the ultimate effect is to fundamentally change the way students and teachers experience school and presumably result in positive academic and behavioral outcomes for students.
Brown, in her introduction, provides an overview of the four stages of implementing school-wide restorative practices and makes a strong argument that implementation fidelity is crucial and if not done properly, can do damage to the very children it is intended to help. Lack of implementation fidelity, Brown argues, can result in mixed-messages and create an environment in which students’ mistrust of adults is confirmed. Whether or not schools will commit to a 3 to 5-year process of implementation, along with the funding to support full implementation is debatable. But the main theme of the book is that this long view is an absolute requirement if the benefits of RJE are to be manifested. Failure to implement with fidelity will leave those involved, both teachers and parents, feeling as if RJE doesn’t work for everyone or that worse discrimination continues but in less harsh ways.
Brown’s argument is that only full implementation of restorative practices can provide a remedy to the harm caused by more than 30 years of zero tolerance policies. She contends that it is relationships and the restorative justice community that grows from the implementation of restorative practices that is the remedy for school violence, not police. In the face of so many school shootings, this may be hard for the parents of murdered children to believe. And yet, according to Brown, many schools are implementing restorative justice practices (RJP), many led by communities of color.
Dr. Martha Brown is a researcher, consultant, evaluator, and staunch advocate of restorative justice. She earned her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from Florida Atlantic University and studied restorative practices in the United Kingdom. She is the lead instructor for Simon Fraser University’s Continuing Studies Restorative Justice Certificate Program where she facilitates education programs in the United States and internationally. She writes and presents on restorative justice and correctional education, and in 2016 founded RAJE Consulting, Intl., providing planning, evaluation and consulting services to schools, school districts and other organizations focusing on restorative justice and art education.
Creating Restorative Schools, begins with an excellent and clear forward by Katherine Evans, PhD., Associate Professor of Education at Eastern Mennonite University. This introduction is needed as while Chapters 1 and 2 provide a compelling history of the history of zero tolerance policies, it is not until Chapter 3, that Brown provides the necessary foundational information for those unfamiliar with RJP, to understand the argument for restorative schools. A list of abbreviations and terms is helpful and provided.
Brown’s dissertation study, which is the basis for the book, used a mixed-method approach. The author conducted key informant interviews, focus groups, observations and surveys in both schools. She chose the schools because they were already in the “early” stages of implementation, student populations represented different demographic groups, and school resources available varied in each school. The leadership styles of the schools’ principles and the reaction from school staff was different as well.
Brown’s book is strongest when describing both schools, especially when describing the leadership and reactions of the staff and students to implementation. Brown makes a clear link between RJE and injustice and equity. She challenges educators and readers to recognize and resolve the historical injustices inflicted on students of color, students with disabilities, the LGBTQIA and other marginalized youth. She argues this is most effectively accomplished when RJE is fully implemented and not just a piecemeal application of specific techniques such as PBIS or SEL
The book could be strengthened if it included research and evaluation studies that demonstrate that restorative practices are effective and result in fair and just discipline for all students, and improved academic, social and behavioral outcomes. Brown’s largely qualitative study of Grant and Davis’s efforts to implement restorative practices also points to the need for more research on the effectiveness of RJ practices and specifically, to more closely study factors that affect implementation.
Creating Restorative Schools would be useful for community psychologists working in school settings, those who conduct research or evaluation in education, or those interested in justice, equity, systems, policy change, and issues related to youth. The book provides a service by framing of issues related to equity and justice as applied in education settings. Given the many PBIS programs and SEL initiatives being implemented in schools, to say nothing of the number of school shootings happening in the United States, Creating Restorative Schools is a timely read.
American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools?: An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist, 63(9), 852-862.
Heitzeg, N. (2009). Education or incarceration: Zero tolerance policies and the school to prison pipeline. Forum on Public Policy Online.
Editor’s note: This issue’s contribution comes from Ann Webb Price, PhD, a community psychologist, evaluator, and President of Community Evaluation Solutions, based in the Atlanta Georgia metro area. CES serves nonprofits, foundations and federally and state-funded prevention and social change programs.