Restorative justice works for students

ByJuan Juarez (op-ed)

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Gilberto was the kind of student I saw in my office all the time when I was the assistant principal of KIPP Camino Academy, a public charter school in San Antonio.

He was out of class almost every day due to conflicts with other students, yelling at teachers, not doing his work and other infractions. When Gilberto ended up with me, I would talk to him, call his parents and issue a punishment —such as suspension — that often kept him out of the classroom.

I thought I was helping Gilberto learn about the consequences of his actions, but when I analyzed the discipline data at the end of the year, I had an unpleasant realization.

Gilberto’s name, along with about 10 other KIPP Camino Academy students, filled the spreadsheet where I kept track of the kids who were referred to me. After scanning the columns, I realized the same small group of children were coming in and out of my office, day after day.

At KIPP, we make a promise to all children who walk through the door that we will help them reach their full academic and personal potential. It was not acceptable that Gilberto, and the other kids on my list, were missing school and jeopardizing their academic potential due to behavior issues. I knew we could do better.

That’s why I was excited to learn about a different approach to student discipline called Restorative Justice during a class for my administrative credential at Trinity University. Rather than just punishing kids, RJ focuses on holding students accountable for their actions so they can learn from their mistakes and change their behavior.

I began trying RJ strategies at KIPP Camino Academy on a pilot basis with our fifth-graders in 2014. Every afternoon, we held “restorative circles,” where students who broke rules came together with their teachers to build relationships and work out consequences.

The restorative circles had a positive impact, and referrals began to decline. During our pilot year of Restorative Justice, suspensions among fifth-graders decreased by 67 percent.

Based on this initial data, when I became the principal of KIPP Camino Academy in 2015, our staff agreed to send a cohort of teachers to a summer training at the Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue at the University of Texas so they could come back and train the rest of our staff.

Two years later, Restorative Justice is the norm for how we respond when students violate our code of conduct. Through daily restorative circles, students and teachers work together to identify what happened and determine a ‘logical’ consequence for the action (e.g., when a student waves scissors around, he or she is not allowed to use scissors for a few days). To avoid students missing out on valuable learning time, KIPP Camino Academy reserves suspension and expulsion only for multiple infractions or actions that jeopardize safety.

And the best part of Restorative Justice? It works. Suspensions have been reduced by 47 percent at KIPP Camino Academy this school year and the overall school climate is more positive and focused on learning. We’ve stopped the “revolving door,” and students such as Gilberto, now spend more time learning in the classroom and less time sitting in the office or suspended at home.

Due to the positive impact of RJ, all six KIPP San Antonio schools are now implementing some restorative strategies, and we anticipate that this will continue to grow over time.

We believe in Restorative Justice because every single student in San Antonio deserves the chance to learn how to navigate conflicts and get along with others, both in the classroom and on the playground. It’s a lesson we all need if we are to build the future we want for our city and for the nation.

Juan Juarez is the school leader at KIPP Camino Academy.