During the 2019-2020 school year, which was cut off six weeks early due to COVID-19, students at Lawrence Public Schools were suspended over 492 different times. This is a significant increase from 297 suspensions just a few years prior. Suspensions are a prime example of zero-tolerance policies that really set our students back. When removed from the classroom, they miss out on learning and are more likely to fall behind and get lower grades. Struggling students may become frustrated or embarrassed, and are more likely to repeat the same misbehavior. Students who receive even one suspension are twice as likely to drop out, and students who drop out are three times as likely to wind up incarcerated. This is what is called the school-to-prison pipeline. This is especially concerning because we know that Black students in Lawrence Public Schools are twice as likely to be suspended as their white peers. Justice Matters wants to plug the school-to-prison pipeline and reduce the racial discipline gap. Here’s how we’ll do it:
- We’re advocating for Lawrence Public Schools to switch to a restorative justice framework. Restorative justice provides an alternative to punitive zero-tolerance policies such as suspensions & expulsions, by focusing on healing harm instead of dispensing consequences. It’s been shown to reduce overall suspensions, and reduce the discipline gap in suspensions.
- Restorative practices have a two-pronged approach. First, all teachers and staff would receive an initial training that covers the basics of creating a restorative classroom. This is the “proactive” side.
- A few specialized teachers and staff members would receive extended training on how to facilitate restorative conferences and mediate discussions of all parties involved in a situation where someone who has been harmed. This is the “reactive” side.
- Multiple studies have shown that while restorative practices can help improve the classroom atmosphere & student-teacher relationships immediately, school districts need long-term implementation with fidelity for 3+ years to make a dent in the number of suspensions and the racial discipline gap. Therefore, implementation & outcomes should be carefully tracked over time.
- Since Justice Matters began this campaign, Lawrence Public Schools have made significant progress towards creating restorative classrooms. Each teacher in the middle & high Schools will receive training in restorative practices prior to the 2021-2022 School year. Each of these schools has a student support facilitator, whose job is to support & promote school-wide restorative practices. The district has also created a newer, much more thorough system for collecting discipline data. That information, including demographic data, is made public each semester. However, Justice Matters uncovered one final piece of the puzzle. While teachers & staff were being trained in restorative practices, discipline procedures & student handbooks still pointed towards automatic suspensions in many cases. According to this language, responding restoratively was optional, instead of a priority.
- At the May 2021 Action Assembly, with more than 600 people in attendance (safely distanced in their cars) Justice Matters asked school board members Carole Cadue-Blackwood & Kelly Jones to make sure language in student handbooks was clear: every reasonable effort should be made to correct misbehavior using restorative practices prior to exclusionary punishment. They both gave a resounding "yes!" To follow up on this commitment, Justice Matters is in contact with the school board members & Dr. Cynthia Johnson, USD497's Executive Director of Engagement, Inclusion, & Belonging, whose team is working on the handbook updates. The changes are still in progress, but should be available by the time students return to the classroom in fall 2021. Stay tuned to our newsletter for any updates.
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