Restorative Justice Is Not Enough: A New Essay About School-Based Interventions in the Carceral State

Restorative Justice Is Not Enough: School-Based Interventions in the Carceral State
by Jane Hereth, Mariame Kaba, Erica R. Meiners, and Lewis Wallace

This following is an excerpt from an essay published in the new book “Disrupting The School-to-Prison Pipeline,” edited by Bahena, Cooc, Currie-Rubin, Kuttner, & Ng. Published by the Harvard Educational Review (December 2012).

We at Project NIA are committed to the idea of engaged participatory research and continuous reflection to improve our practice. All of the co-authors have some involvement with the organization and we hope that those who read the essay will gain more knowledge about some of the challenges that we’ve experienced and some of the lessons that we’ve learned. We feel blessed at NIA to be part of a larger landscape of organizing and activism in Chicago against the carceral state. The essay reflects that broader landscape.

Working from the authors’ Chicago-based practices, research and activism, this chapter assesses the potential of restorative justice practices to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. In the last ten years, a movement advocating and implementing restorative justice alternatives developed in Chicago Public Schools as a direct result of the massive expansion of the carceral state and the growth of “zero tolerance” and school-to-prison tracking. The authors conceptually and historically map the progression of restorative justice in Chicago in order to outline strengths of interventions and to detail their concerns about the direction of the restorative justice movement in schools and its ability to intervene in the school-to-prison pipeline. They conclude with an analysis of transformative justice to highlight valuable practices and political frameworks to center in interventions.

“Take her! Take her!”

It’s 9:00 A.M. on Monday, and the visibly upset kindergarten teacher screams at me from across the hall. She is holding a six-year-old by her wrist. The little girl, with a dozen pink and white barrettes framing her tear-stained face, yells, “Get off me, let me go!” The teacher pushes the student toward me. I reach out my hand, and the little girl grabs it.

“When should I bring her back?” I ask.

“NEVER,” the teacher yells. “I don’t want her! Never bring her back!”

Before I make it to the main office at Lockwood Elementary1—a K–8 school in a northside Chicago neighborhood—to get the Peace Room key and sign in, two more students are assigned to me.

At noon I am paged over the intercom: “Ms. C, please come to the assistant principal’s office immediately.” In Mrs. Edwards’s office I recognize a fourteen-year-old eighth-grader, Trevon, sitting across from her with his head in his hands.

“You are lucky that Ms. C is here,” Mrs. Edwards says. “Otherwise, you would be on your way to jail in handcuffs.”

Trevon had lashed out in the lunchroom at one of his peers, repeatedly shouting inappropriate and sexual slurs at a female classmate who had touched his neck while he was waiting in line to eat. Two security guards approached him. He continued to shout and was physically removed from the lunchroom and taken across the hall to the administrative office.

As Mrs. Edwards recounted the incident, Trevon interrupted several times: “She started it!” he yelled. “This is unfair, why isn’t she sitting up in here?” When Mrs. Edwards suggested I find a black male mentor to work with him, he laughed derisively. “A what?” he asked. As she tried to explain, he started to laugh uncontrollably and muttered something as he folded his arms into his chest. “Ha ha ha! In THIS neighborhood? At THIS school? GOOD LUCK WITH THAT! Ha ha ha!”

I ask him if he would like to go for a walk with me to see the Peace Room and talk, and he responds, “Not really.”

Mrs. Edwards chimes in from her seat, “Or I can call the police . . .”

At 3:30 P.M., right outside of the middle school building, a nasty fight erupts between two young men. Two students run up to the Peace Room: “Ms. C, Ms. C, please come to the basketball court. Jesse and Chris are fighting and the police are going to arrest them.” By the time I get downstairs, both young men are in handcuffs and being put into the back of a squad car. I ask Officer Hernandez to please not take the young men to the station. I promise to intervene. “I will run a peace circle,” I say. “Do you both agree to participate in a circle?” I ask both young men. They nod. Officer Hernandez looks skeptical but agrees to release them. He looks over to the boys and says, “You are lucky Ms. C is here vouching for you, but next time, you are going to the station.”

This snapshot is from an average day in the work of Project NIA, a Chicago-based community organization that attempts to engage alternative justice practices to halt the movement of young people from our communities into our prisons and jails. Lockwood Elementary and Middle School looks similar to many public schools across Chicago. At Lockwood, 65 percent of the 540 students spread out across two buildings are African American and 26 percent are Latino; the majority (nearly 95%) qualifies for free and reduced lunch (a federal designation signifying low income); and almost 20 percent are classified as having limited English proficiency. Over the past twenty years, students at Lockwood have consistently tested below national norms. And at Lockwood high rates of suspension are the norm.

For those interested in understanding the school-to-prison pipeline, we highly recommend purchasing Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline. You can read the rest of the essay in the book.

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