In the 1990s, ‘zero tolerance’ policies were created for school systems as a response to drugs, alcohol and other student behavioral issues. Throughout the last decade, the US Department of Education directed schools to move away from zero tolerance policies, citing lower academic achievement, as well as socioeconomic and racial bias, as major concerns. Restorative Justice was implemented as a response, and is being embraced more and more across the country.
There is a fine line that stands between necessary corrections, and unnecessary actions taken which harm student achievement. Hopefully, DHS can follow the national trend to reforming its discipline policies.
In the fall of 2017, Restorative Justice coordinator Saharah Thurston, along with help from La Plata Youth Services (LPYS) and the Restorative Justice Implementation Committee, began to establish a new restorative justice (RJ) program at DHS.
“[Restorative justice] says [that if] you broke the law or the rule … we’re going to figure out how to repair that harm. Instead of getting suspended, you would have to repair that harm with whomever you did that harm to” says Thurston.
RJ will possibly replace suspensions and rethink the disciplinary actions taken towards students who have violated the school code of conduct.
Scott Smith, RJ committee member and community activist for La Plata Youth Services, reminds the community that RJ is less of a program and more of a philosophy.
“Restorative practices focus on exploring what harm was caused, how to repair that harm, and prevent it from happening again. There is a higher level of accountability with restorative practices compared to traditional punitive discipline and suspensions” says Smith.
Smith is helping to change the face of school discipline and lead students in the right direction not only in their decisions and actions, but in their mentality.
“It’s a natural fit for the DHS community because it focuses on relationship, accountability, and developing positive character.” Says Smith.
RJ is compelling students to reflect on how their actions will affect others in the community, not just themselves.
The committee agrees that school wide suspensions are deferring students from valuable life lessons that can (and should) be learned from their mistakes.
“My personal opinion is that out of school suspensions are ineffective in both changing negative behavior and in educating students.” Says Smith.
Smith believes that displacing students from the education zone actually makes the problem at hand and the issues that the student is dealing with, worse for the student.
“I don’t necessarily think that kids learn a lot from suspensions and I feel that they have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes through Restorative justice” says Thurston.
Assistant Principal Amy Swartz, who has previous experience implementing RJ, represents the administration on the committee, and feels RJ provides badly needed support for struggling students.
“It is a way for us to add an extra layer of support for our students, and it’s a way that we can decrease suspensions – like from five days to three, or from three days to one” says Swartz.
Swartz has seen RJ work, and is hopeful that it will make a positive change in the lives of DHS students.
“I have seen it work for students who are serious about wanting to change – it’s an exciting thing when it does work” says Swartz.
It is not hard to see that the foundations of discipline policies in schools have not changed to reflect growing academic research on the topic.
An anonymous DHS was recently suspended and given the opportunity to participate in RJ; their take on the suspension is exactly what RJIP is trying to prevent.
“You want to hear the real story? It’s pretty f**** up. I wasn’t high or anything, so like I wasn’t’ telling them that they could not search me because I just wanted to get back to class right?” said the student.
The student explains their three day substance abuse related suspension in detail, and how it was not the best option for discipline, or for the wellbeing of their education.
“It was really [messed] up because [the administration] was just suspending me for the thing I’ve been doing, even though I’m just going to go home and do it again” said the student.
The student takes pride in their school work, and feels like their suspension was an empty gesture towards the real issue.
“I’m not going to be in school, clearly, but when I am in school, I do my work, and I get good grades. They’re not getting anything out of it, they’re just taking me out of school.”
Obviously, suspensions have seen their time, and at this point in modern day education, suspensions only remove students from their priorities.
Consequently, Thurston is advocating for any student’s ability to figure out how to repair the mistake that they made, instead of just getting suspended and saying “forget it”.
Time is crucial in this process, but regardless of the time it takes, RJ will make it’s footprint on the grounds of DHS.
“It is also important to note that it takes time for these practices to take hold. I think a needed step is educating the whole DHS community about what restorative practices are and what they look like, especially in the classroom” says Smith.
When Durango is also educated on RJ, students can more easily adapt the wholesome mindset that RJ stands for.
“I hope that in the future we can get restorative justice into all the classrooms at DHS, to where teachers are using restorative language and really connecting with students on a social emotional level” says Thurston.
Restorative language initiates a non judgemental understanding of the issues at hand, positive tones, and clear expectations for the student and their behaviors.
In the end, Restorative Justice is about advocating for the students of DHS, not only in the classroom, but in the midst of everyday struggles that high school kids face.
“By doing that, we can reduce some of the bigger issues that kids are going through today” says Thurston.