By Stefanie Jackson
Every year in Northampton schools, two and a half times as many students are suspended as compared to the state average. Accomack schools are not far behind, with nearly twice as many students suspended compared to the state average. Suspension rates are even higher for black and Hispanic students than for white students.
Throughout 2018, Dr. Arthur Carter, of Nassawadox, frequently attended Northampton school board meetings and spoke during public comment periods, advocating for restorative justice – an alternative to traditional, punitive discipline – as a means of reducing suspensions for Northampton students.
Psychologist and counselor Gerald Boyd, of Eastville, has also been a proponent of restorative justice in Northampton schools.
As evidence that restorative discipline is gaining acceptance in other Virginia school divisions, Carter shared information from the 33rd Annual Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA) Conference on Education in Richmond last July.
Principal Laurel Byrd, of Thomas Hunter Middle School, in Mathews County, said studies show that “zero tolerance policies and practices that punish have no long-term effect on student behavior.”
She suggested that “restorative practices” may help reduce the “school to prison pipeline” and an increasing amount of teacher frustration and referrals written.
Successfully incorporating restorative discipline in schools requires a “shift in focus,” she said. Traditional discipline punishes students for breaking the rules, but restorative discipline assists students in mending their relationships.
Punishment often leads to “lying and defensiveness,” but restorative justice encourages “honesty and truth-telling.”
It also redefines accountability as “taking responsibility for actions” rather than simply “accepting punishment.”
Instead of school authorities punishing a student and often isolating the offender, the restorative process involves everyone affected by the offender’s actions, including the victim, and seeks to rehabilitate the student within the school community.
Students who undergo restorative discipline are also less likely to re-offend.
Recent data from Fairfax County Public Schools, which have implemented restorative justice, corroborates this claim.
About 94 percent of Fairfax students who participated in a restorative justice conference did not have a second violation of the school division’s code of conduct within one year. Of 1,086 offenders who attended a conference, only 65 committed a similar offense in the following year.
About 48 percent of the students who re-offended were in special education.
Reducing school suspensions is crucial to children’s future success, the Fairfax presentation suggested. According to 2012 data from the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice, middle schoolers who are repeatedly suspended are three times more likely to be involved in the justice system later in life.
Just one suspension reduces a student’s likelihood to graduate from high school by 20 percent, the data further suggested.
“Socioeconomic and racial disproportionality in the administration of school discipline” also continues to be a problem, according to an Albemarle County Public Schools report given at the VS-BA conference.
In the 2011-2012 school year, the most recent year for which federal data on school discipline was available, black students made up only 24 percent of all Virginia public school students, yet they accounted for 51 percent of suspensions and 41 percent of expulsions.
To address this issue, Albemarle schools are implementing STEP (Short Term Education Program), an alternative to out-of-school suspension that helps students reach their academic goals and provides one-on-one counseling.
Carter has not yet received an official response from Northampton school board members concerning their position on restorative justice. About a month ago, he readdressed the board.
“All we’re asking is that the school system join with a community committee to begin working on how we can obtain sustainable funds to implement restorative, inclusionary discipline” and “eliminate the disparities that we still have in school discipline … to do what we need to do – the right thing,” he said.
By Stefanie Jackson