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Viewpoints: Buffalo schools should embrace restorative practices

By Larry Scott

On Aug. 23, I began a four-day training on Restorative Justice Intensive Peacemaking with national expert on restorative strategies, Robert Spicer. As a parent leader in Buffalo Public Schools and a school psychologist in the Ken-Ton District, I enrolled in this training, hosted by Open Buffalo, to educate myself on this growing movement of restorative practices in our schools and communities as an alternative approach to traditional discipline practices. From the first day, the training immediately became much more – it impacted me deeply on a personal level.

A few days in, when referencing the overuse of PowerPoints in presentations, Spicer declared, “I don’t want you to just see it … I don’t want you to just hear it … I want you to feel it!” I felt it, as did everyone else who participated – representatives from Open Buffalo, District Parent Coordinating Council, Partnership for the Public Good, Erie County Youth Services, VOICE Buffalo, Matt Urban Hope Center, faith-based leaders, teachers, a small business owner and a professor in higher education. Spicer made clear that he is not a therapist, but the process of participating in Circles, derived from aboriginal and native traditions, can be therapeutic. This experience truly was. Is there a better way to learn and transform than from an emotional and personal endeavor?

My ultimate takeaway from the four days is that there is great power and healing in telling stories and in the exchange of stories with others. Each of us came from diverse walks of life and experiences, yet there was a true sense of community and magical connection between us.

Spicer clearly articulated that restorative justice is “not a program … it is a philosophy.” As an educator, I was delighted to hear this for several reasons. Canned programs are usually poorly developed; produce little systemic, long-lasting change; don’t discern, understand and adapt easily to the individual needs of students, schools and communities; and are always ripe for making a profit.

The absence of a profit motive was evident throughout the training; Spicer came with no products, not even handouts. In fact, he came with nothing but his own talking pieces. This also served as an example that restorative practices do not rely on tangible rewards and gimmicks.

Restorative justice is a movement focused on building relationships, building community, repairing harm of misbehavior, encouraging personal responsibility and, as professed by Spicer, “gaining power through the collective voices of all.”

Spicer is not some fly-by-night intellectual or academic; he lives and breathes this work, and did so in a Chicago public school from 2009 to 2014. At Christian Fenger High School, after a student was beaten to death in a teenage brawl on Chicago’s South Side, he led the implementation of restorative practices and played an integral role in repairing a broken community and substantially turning around one of the lowest-performing schools in Chicago. As a result, “serious misconduct cases” and student arrests reduced significantly, and attendance, graduation and college enrollment rates improved greatly.

Like Fenger, prior to 2010, our public schools’ disciplinary systems operated under zero tolerance policies, which were enacted in the 1990s with intent to address violent behavior. These policies have been a systemic disaster and have been misused and abused to address all problematic behavior in our schools, such as noncompliance, disrespect and interpersonal conflict.

This has been fueled by the premise that all acts of misbehavior are volitional and within a student’s control; and therefore, punishment alone will modify future behavior. This premise ignores the immaturity of the child and adolescent brain, particularly, the prefrontal cortex that is responsible for planning, organization, reasoning, foreseeing consequences of actions, impulse control and regulating attention and emotions. It is why suspension has been ineffective in changing behavior and has been associated with increased defiance, more severe problem behavior, negative attitudes toward school and teachers, poor attendance, failure, dropout and contact with the juvenile justice system.

In schools across the nation, these policies have resulted in alarming suspension rates and a disproportionate amount of male students, students of color and students with disabilities being suspended. Multiple studies have shown that black and male students experience an inequity in disciplinary consequences – they are more likely to be suspended and treated more harshly for similar offenses. This is real; it is happening. To borrow from another great mind in public education, Christopher Emdin, it may not always be our intention, but it is our execution.

We must move toward not only understanding how we would like people to behave, but how they actually behave. Unlike traditional punishment in our schools, restorative practices view misbehavior as:

• A violation of people and relationships, instead of just a violation of rules and policies.

• An opportunity to create obligations, not just guilt.

• Being inclusive of offenders, victims and others in the community in making things right, not just an authority figure imposing punishment.

• Personal responsibility to repair harm, not just getting what one deserves.

Contrary to the belief of some, utilizing restorative practices is not letting “kids off the hook” and can include methods of restitution and community service, experiences that can have a more meaningful and long-lasting impact on the individual and community.

Knowing the detrimental suspension rates and unjust disproportionality in suspension rates across color, gender and disability, our schools and students need restorative practices. I am inspired by the Buffalo Public Schools’ three-year Strategic Plan on Restorative Practices and Suspension Reduction, which includes trauma-informed care, as well as Ken-Ton Schools beginning to embrace these approaches.

However, just like all major systemic challenges, it’s going to take more than just good ideas and a good plan. It’s going to require time, staff, prioritizing and a genuine investment. It’s going to take, as they say, a village – our administrators, teachers, all school staff, parents and families, faith-based leaders, community organizations and leaders, law enforcement, elected officials, education officials and policymakers – all of us, collectively, to produce real, substantial change.

Larry Scott is a Buffalo Public School parent, co-chairman of the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization and a school psychologist in the Ken-Ton School District.

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