Restorative Justice Follow Up

Lilah Slaughter, Reporter

Colorado has worked to instate restorative practices statewide since 2011, but under DHS’s new principal, Jon Hoerl, the movement has recently become a hotly debated topic.

Select teachers and admin have been working against ingrained school operations and logistic challenges to restorative justice.

The main difference between restorative justice and restorative practices, though used interchangeably, is the former’s emphasis on repairing relationships between perpetrator and victim. While restorative practices apply when there’s no clear victim, both focus on actions that resolve the punishable offense.

“I think the benefits are students being able to reflect upon the impact their behaviors and actions have had on themselves, their community, their families. It really is a reflective practice, and a strong one,” said Hoerl.

However, despite the overwhelming evidence supporting the efficacy of eliminating suspensions and expulsions for nonviolent offenses, students are still being suspended and restorative practices have a long way to go at DHS.

“This is the first year for DHS, and we’re still trying to get restorative justice in lieu of suspension. A lot of kids are still getting suspended but also getting the restorative justice element to right the wrongs they’ve done. The hope is that by the end of the year we will move towards more restorative justice,” said DHS restorative justice coordinator Sahara Thurston.

Mounting research on the school-to-prison pipeline has been a primary force behind the push towards restorative practices nationwide. Studies have shown that suspended students are likely to be repeat-offenders; suspensions and expulsions themselves often drain students motivation to return to school and attend classes regularly.

“Zero-tolerance policies… frequently lead to dropping out, thereby significantly contributing to the school to prison pipeline. Our future is our children and we need to do everything in our power to keep them in school and out of the criminal justice system,” said Pete Lee, Democratic Colorado Representative and proponent of restorative practices.

Hoerl, while supportive of breaking the school to prison pipeline, doesn’t believe the research entirely applies to DHS:

“Often times, it targets our minority populations and our poverty populations, where we have a poverty or prison cycle that needs to be broken. In a traditional setting, oftentimes it does manifest itself in that school to prison pipeline, but I don’t think it has the same magnitude here at DHS as in other settings,” Hoerl said.

Where Durango lacks in minorities, it doesn’t necessarily have a low population of lower-income families, who feel an impact as profound.

Calling the US the “Incarceration Nation,” Pete Lee said “We are incarcerating people at increasing rates, and then releasing them un-rehabilitated, unrepentant and unprepared to rejoin our communities… It is time to move our justice system from punishment and retribution to collaboration, restoration and community building,” on his website.

There may not be an incarceration issue in Durango itself, but students rarely stay in town after graduating or dropping out of high school; Durango High contributes to the higher incarceration rates statewide as much as other schools.

On the other hand, students aren’t suffering out-of-school suspensions due to contrasting opinions alone.

“[In-school suspensions] require a tremendous amount of structure, and it requires students being willing and able to manage that extended amount of time in one location… Another component is that it also takes a unique adult to effectively manage and operate a room that has benefits to it,” said Hoerl.

For the school, suspensions are currently easier to assign than providing a controlled environment for in-school suspensions or counselors and advisors for restorative justice.

Opposing that argument, restorative justice initiators believe that punitive punishment should never be the response to actions that could provide a teaching moment for a student; it’s not the punishment that matters, but the skills gained afterwards.