Restorative justice

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Tuesday, July 24th, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today: the debate over school discipline and safety.

After the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in February, survivors and victims’ families struggled to find answers: How could something like this happen? How’d the system let them down?

Eventually, they’d come to blame the Broward County school system’s Promise Program for enabling Nikolas Cruz’s deadly rampage.

The Promise Program is part of a national movement known as restorative justice. It seeks to do away with punitive actions like suspensions and expulsions — and replace them with efforts that help students think through their behavior and make better choices.

BASHAM: But critics say restorative justice programs make schools less safe. They say students like Cruz never face the consequences of their actions.

Here to tell us more about the debate in Florida and across the country is WORLD Radio’s Leigh Jones.

Leigh, the Florida commission investigating the Parkland shooting drew some interesting conclusions about that Promise Program earlier this month. What did it say?

LEIGH JONES, NEWS EDITOR: Well, they found that the Promise Program played no role in enabling Nikolas Cruz, and the reason is that even if he had had a criminal record stemming from some of the things he did when he was in middle school and early high school, it wouldn’t have actually prevented him from buying the gun he used in the attack… But that hasn’t quelled criticism of the program. Ryan Petty is one of the members of the commission. His daughter Alaina died in the attack, and he still blames the Promise Program because it created what he describes as a lenient disciplinary atmosphere, which allows students like Cruz to continue escalating potentially dangerous behavior.

BASHAM: Well, let’s back up a bit then and talk about how restorative justice programs got so popular. What would you say is driving this trend?

JONES: Well, it’s actually tied to anti-discrimination efforts. So, statistics across the country show that minority students get suspensions and expulsions at much higher rates than their white classmates. And those punishments can have a lasting effect on academics because they take students out of the classroom… So there’s been this push to make sure fewer minority students get suspended or expelled. And that really accelerated under the Obama administration when the Education Department warned schools that they had to fix the racial disparity in their school discipline numbers or face the loss of federal funds. So, that’s what really prompted more and more schools to adopt restorative justice programs. And in the end, they almost instantly fixed the problem because no one was getting suspended or expelled. And so administrators really love that because it looks like they’re doing their jobs. But the problem is… The students are still doing all the things that once got them suspended or expelled, they’re just not being punished for it.

BASHAM: Well, I think the obvious question, then, to a lot of people is that if this guidance came from the Obama administration, why can’t President Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, just rescind it?

JONES: She most definitely can. And conservative groups have been asking her to do that for about 18 months. Max Eden, a Manhattan Institute scholar who has studied restorative justice programs, is one of the education policy experts urging the secretary to rescind that so-called “Dear Colleague” letter. And here’s what he told me about the difficulty DeVos is facing:

EDEN: I think Secretary DeVos is somewhat nervous… because… if you oppose an effort that is allegedly to fight discrimination, the implication it will be painted that you were there for supporting discrimination. Uh, and so it’s a, it will be a very difficult move for her to make in terms of public relations and every time she steps forward to speak about it, her words are not always well chosen and she ends up taking a little bit of a shellacking in the press.

BASHAM: So, it sounds like from this that he’s not hopeful that restorative justice programs are going to end anytime soon.

JONES: Yeah, he’s really not. Although, there are some other pressures at work here that may have a bigger impact. Many teachers, for example, really hate these programs because they make them feel less safe in the classroom. Teachers know that they’re not supposed to send students to the principal’s office, for example, but students know that as well. And they know they’re not going to get in trouble for disruptive behavior and so the classroom order really suffers. So, you’ve got teachers on the one hand who feel less safe and administrators on the other hand who really like the programs because it makes it look like they’re doing their jobs. And so that’s really created tension within teachers unions. And listeners will probably remember because we’ve talked about this recently, that teachers unions are really facing a potential membership crisis after a recent Supreme Court ruling. And so if teachers start putting a lot of pressure on their local unions and possibly even threaten to stop paying their union dues, then that may really change the tone of this conversation about restorative justice.

And I think it’s worth pointing out that the conversation does need to take place. The school-to-prison pipeline for minority students is a legitimate concern, as is school safety. But it seems like policymakers may have to look for new ways to address this set of issues.

BASHAM: Well, I have a lot of educators in my life and, not to mention, we all have lots of students in our lives, so this is going to be interesting to watch. Leigh Jones is WORLD Radio’s news editor and she covers education for WORLD Digital. Leigh, thanks so much.

JONES: Thanks, Megan.

(Associated Press/Photo by Taimy Alvarez/South Florida Sun-Sentinel) Florida school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz during court hearing on April 27 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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