Greenbush workshop teaches “restorative justice” as alternative to traditional discipline

Could be key to curbing "school-to-prison pipeline"

GREENBUSH, Kan. -A program that was once reserved for inmates is gaining momentum as a helpful tool for educators.

For the past 11 years, Stephanie Groth has dedicated her time to her students, resolving many conflicts along the way, but her ideas about discipline are changing.

“We need to look deeper within what brings us where we’re at, what causes a student to act the way they do,” said Goth, who teaches middle school special education in Cherryvale.

Restorative justice was first implemented in the criminal justice sector intended to repair the harm caused by a crime by emphasizing accountability and making amends with victims.

“He was able to go, you know, ‘Thank you for not giving up.'”

Sheryl Wilson spent years in a community mediation center, working with violent offenders. She soon realized, though, that she could be making a difference with young people, before they wound up in the system, by proposing restorative practices over suspension or detention.

“We talk about the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s a real thing because these inmates can tell you, ‘I was drummed out of school, I had all of these different things happen, and this is why I ended up doing the things that I did,'” explained Wilson, Director of the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Bethel College.

Groth and other teachers sit in a circle with a bowl in the center representing a place to focus, share and listen using a talking piece to give the speaker the floor without interruption. This practice can be utilized in classrooms, but restorative justice can be as simple as one-on-one communication without judgment, bringing together students who have been harmed with those who have harmed them in a process of accountability and repair.

“Most of the time, the discipline that is given to them does not equate what’s going on inside, so if we can dig deeper and find out what’s going on, build those relationships and restore and mend what’s happening, hopefully we can create more of a positive arena for the kids,” said Groth.

Wilson also brought out how anti-racism training can make a difference for school districts. While black people are just 13% of the U.S. population, they make up the greatest percentage of people in prisons and jails, that’s 40%.

48% of preschool children suspended more than once are black, and students with disabilities are also suspended more frequently than students without disabilities.

Students receiving out-of-school suspensions by race/ethnicity and gender

U.S. Department of Education, 2010-11

Many students who express behavioral issues at school are acting out in response to stressful or dangerous conditions in their homes, so removing them from school and returning them to a problematic or unsupervised home environment hurts rather than helps their overall development.

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