Legal Rights Center director Michael Friedman wants schools to exchange the punitive for the transformative.
What he wants to end is a system of suspensions and expulsions that takes students away from instructional time and does little to improve behavior or academics — a system that is viewed by many as racist.
What he wants instead is a restorative justice model that helps students understand the damage their actions cause, while giving them an opportunity to fix their mistakes.
Minneapolis Public Schools may be on his side.
In partnership with the Legal Rights Center, a non-profit law firm, the Minneapolis school district has offered Restorative Family Conferencing as an alternative to expulsion since 2008. Participating students wipe expulsion from their record and are welcomed back to their school after a meeting where they tell their side of the story and come up with steps to make things right.
The program is an example of what can happen when flexibility and compassion are integrated into school discipline programs. But although Friedman and district officials say the program could function similarly for suspensions, so far the model is only used district-wide for expulsions.
Friedman said a suspension alternative is needed both in Minneapolis and nationally. He’s part of a growing consensus that says taking struggling students out of school does nothing to prevent future behavior problems or improve academic outcomes. Equally worrisome, suspension is applied unevenly to non-white students. In Minneapolis public schools in 2011, 14.6 percent of black students were suspended from school at least once. Only 2.4 percent of white students were suspended.
Currently, the restorative family conferencing process helps mend the fear and distrust that an expulsion can cause. It’s a leap of faith for school administrators wary to welcome back a student who carried a weapon or drugs to school, assaulted or threatened someone or committed theft or arson. And it’s a leap, too, for students and parents distrustful of a school they feel does not have their interests at heart.
The program keeps kids out of trouble and gets them back to learning. In the 2007-2008 school year, 19 percent of students recommended for expulsion in Minneapolis had to be transferred out of their temporary contract alternative school placements because of a new incident. Since restorative family conferencing was implemented in 2008-2009, no program participants have had to leave their temporary placement schools.
In 2010, the University of Minnesota started monitoring students who completed conferencing. The study is young, so researchers are still collecting data. A small sample of nine students with data available showed significant decreases in suspensions a year after participating in conferencing. They went from two to three suspensions the year of their expulsion to an average of 0.33 suspensions the year after conferencing. Since 2008, 168 students have participated in the program.
“What we’re trying to emphasize is not that we made things good for two or three months. It’s that we made a transformation,” said Friedman.
A bonehead move
Brad Schrag’s son was in deep. One dumb move and he was asked to leave his school community and accept a big black mark new to his record.
The eighth-grader brought a knife to school, and policy states that if you carry in a weapon, you’re out. “Everyone involved agreed that there was no intent to use the knife, but they claim they had no choice,” Schrag said.
In Minneapolis, expulsion means that a child is placed at another school. It sends the message that what a child has done is so serious, they are no longer welcome in their community.
In most cases, since 2008, the district asks families if they’d like their student to return to their original school. If they do, restorative family conferencing gets rolling.
The Legal Rights Center calls the family, explains the process and sets up a meeting. The student, members of their family, a district social worker, and usually staff from the original school and the new school meet with someone from the Legal Rights Center, who acts as a neutral party.
This is key: the meetings always start with a discussion about the student’s strengths, successes and dreams for themselves.
They always close with some actions the student can take to restore their place in the school community – sometimes it’s an apology, other times it’s a strategy to avoid ending up in the same seat again.
Everyone gets a chance to talk.
Kids with problems or just plain no good?
In the Schrags’ case, the meeting allowed the family to explain some tough circumstances. The family home was burglarized at the start of the school year. Since the event, unbeknownst to anyone but himself, horrible scenarios had been running through Schrag’s son’s mind. He started carrying a knife.
“If [my son] had been expelled it would have been huge. Expulsion would have been a much bigger impact on our family,” Schrag said.
Instead, he and his family completed restorative family conferencing, and after a brief stint at a different middle school, his son returned to his home school. The reconciliation piece? He had to make a presentation in front of more than 100 classmates about what happens when you bring a weapon to school.
“I still feel like it was excessive but I think it turned out as best as it could,” Schrag said.
“A lot of times families get really frustrated. They feel like they don’t have a voice at the school,” said LRC restorative programs director Simone Abel. “The families think, ‘The school is against us.’ I think it’s one of the most critical parts, that they find out that that isn’t true.”
“It allows for some flexibility in the system to accommodate an eighth grade boy who made a self-admittedly stupid choice, to pay a penalty more commensurate with his actions,” said Schrag.
That point is something Friedman said administrators frequently forget. “When it’s a white child there’s a view of, they’re having problems, but they’re basically okay,” he said. He added that that viewpoint isn’t always extended to non-white students, “They’re on a road to having permanent problems.”
Starting the conferences with student assets addresses that perception head-on. Said Friedman. “It helps everyone in the room get away from that racist paradigm of this kid is going to end up no good.”
What about suspensions?
The Legal Rights Center says the process works for suspensions, too. In fact, before the partnership with Minneapolis was formalized in 2008, the LRC worked principally on suspension cases.
And that’s what’s next, said Julie Young-Burns, coordinator for Minneapolis’s Safe and Drug-free Schools programs.
“Every time a young person has a suspension, the hope is the school and staff and family will sit down together for a return meeting,” said Young-Burns. “We’re hoping to formalize that process a little bit more and when needed have our staff host that dialogue.”
Expanding schools’ use of restorative practices like circle-keeping and restorative family conferencing will be an explicit part of a strategic plan the department is currently drafting. Young-Burns said conferencing could be used before a conflict escalates to suspension or to address a student suspended multiple times for the same reason.
It wouldn’t make sense to copy and paste the expulsion model. Conferencing for expulsion is easier to implement district-wide, because each expulsion recommendation passes over the desk of a district official – they’re the ones who refer cases to the LRC.
Far more suspensions occur every year than expulsions, and the LRC does not have the capacity to send an advocate for every suspension in the district. School staff would likely need to be trained to take on the role now played by LRC staff and district officials.
The burden is ultimately on individual school principals to implement restorative justice programs. They’re the ones who decide whether or not to suspend a student. “A suspension is a decision, essentially, and the person making that decision has a whole variety of things that they can do instead,” said Jim Johnson, director of Minneapolis schools Student Support Services.
Young-Burns already sees school administrators increasingly aware of and interested in restorative practices, and LRC staff agree. They said they’re getting more calls requesting help with restorative family conferencing.
Eventually, Friedman said he’d like to develop a best practices model that schools nationwide could implement. He said, as far as he knows, this is the first place where restorative family conferencing has been used in schools.
“Students need to be removed from their class when they’re interfering with the learning of other students. No one’s arguing with that,” Friedman said. “What we’re really just trying to get at is the mindless suspensions.”
The program isn’t right for all suspensions – LRC staff said it isn’t effective for elementary school students, for example, but Friedman said, “I’d rather do our method on a third grader than suspend a third grader.”
The method wouldn’t work, but neither would a suspension.