Schooled Reporting on education

A dangerous fig leaf

Education | ‘Restorative justice’ approaches to school discipline reduces punishments but enables behavior problems
by Leigh Jones
Posted 7/18/18, 03:35 pm

The commission investigating the Feb. 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., won’t release its final report until the beginning of 2019. But last week it came to an important, early conclusion: The Broward County school system’s restorative justice program played no role in enabling Nikolas Cruz’s murderous rampage.

Administrators referred Cruz to his school’s Promise Program in 2013, after he vandalized a middle school restroom faucet. In the weeks after the shooting that killed 17 people, victims and parents blasted the program for keeping Cruz out of official legal trouble and avoiding criminal charges that could have prevented him from legally buying the gun he used in the attack. He never attended the sessions, an omission administrators couldn’t explain. But Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, from Pinellas County across the state, said even if Cruz had faced criminal charges over that incident, it wouldn’t have stopped him from buying a gun when he turned 18.

Max Eden, a Manhattan Institute scholar who has studied restorative justice programs, called Gualtieri’s conclusions “technically accurate but broadly indefensible.” Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina died in the attack, seemed to agree, blaming the Promise Program for creating a lenient disciplinary atmosphere that allows students like Cruz to avoid consequences for potentially dangerous behavior.

The Promise Program is part of a movement away from traditional school discipline, which tends to rely on suspensions, expulsions, and in-school arrests to keep order. Education leaders want to eschew punitive punishment in favor of so-called restorative justice, which focuses on helping students understand the motives behind their behavior and make better decisions. It’s chiefly designed to reduce the disciplinary actions meted out to minority students, who have higher rates of suspensions and expulsions than their white counterparts.

The popularity of restorative justice programs exploded during the Obama administration, when the U.S. Department of Education issued a warning to school districts: Fix the racial disparity in school discipline numbers or face an investigation and the potential loss of federal funds. Restorative justice offered a quick way for schools to reduce those numbers because students almost never got disciplinary referrals. But bad behavior did not suddenly disappear, Eden noted, citing Cruz as a prime example.

In Broward County, students must be referred to the Promise Program four times before school administrators may involve law enforcement. That discourages administrators from calling the police even after serious threats. Students at Stoneman Douglas told administrators Cruz had threatened to kill people, in writing, but school officials did nothing about it, Eden said.

“The administrators were doing what they were pressured to do, which is try to avoid students getting in trouble, especially into serious trouble,” he noted.

While criticism of restorative justice mounted after the Parkland shooting, opponents have tried for the last 18 months to persuade the Trump administration to rescind the school discipline directive to no avail.

Eden believes lobbying by civil rights activists, who tie school discipline to racism, have made it nearly impossible for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to disavow the restorative justice approach.

“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,” Eden said.

That same public relations pressure makes it highly unlikely school districts will abandon restorative justice, even though it’s not working the way proponents intended. Eden compared the reality to the plot of the popular HBO crime drama The Wire. The mayor wants crime to go down, so the police chief orders his deputies to ignore lawbreaking.

“If you slap a nice moniker of restorative justice on that, it looks like a victory,” Eden said. “So I think broadly, restorative justice has been more of a fig leaf to cover up this systematic suppression of teachers’ good judgments. It can work, but I don't think it's likely to work if it's being driven from the top down rather than from the bottom up.”

U.S. Department of Labor U.S. Department of Labor Lily Eskelsen García at a Latino Leaders Network Luncheon in Washington, D.C., in 2013

Teachers union trims budgets but not top salaries

Several weeks ago I wrote about celebrations among school choice advocates after last month’s Supreme Court ruling striking down non-member union fees. Teachers unions expect to lose members—and money—under the new rules, giving them less cash to put toward fighting school choice initiatives. We already knew the National Education Association planned to cut $50 million from its $385 million budget. Now we know which departments will feel the pinch. One area in which the nation’s largest teachers union does not plan to cut spending: executive salaries. NEA president Lily Eskelsen García will make $293,434 next year, with her two deputies making $257,954. The three top executives each get a little more than $100,000 to cover housing and other day-to-day expenses. I wonder whether they feel even the slightest twinge when they read stories about teachers taking second jobs to cover their expenses, at least one of which probably is union dues. —L.J.

Facebook/Photo by J.J. Johnson Facebook/Photo by J.J. Johnson Noah Karvelis speaking at a rally

Name-calling in Arizona

The campaign over an education-funding ballot measure is heating up in Arizona. Teachers are championing the bid to raise taxes on the wealthy to bring in about $690 million for education. Opponents of the tax have labeled one of the most outspoken teachers in the movement a socialist (which probably carries less stigma in a post–Bernie Sanders era). Noah Karvelis, a 24-year-old music teacher, really did attend a conference on socialism but insists he’s a progressive Democrat. Although they’ve defended Karvelis’ trip to the conference, leaders for the #InvestInEd campaign are distancing themselves from him, saying he’s not a leader in the organization. That may offer some insight into the uphill battle organizers anticipate in November. —L.J.

Rethinking the endowment tax

Remember that provision in the tax code overhaul that slapped a penalty of sorts on private universities with huge endowments? Some Republicans are having second thoughts, thanks to successful university lobbying efforts. (I’m sure lobbying fees aren’t as much as the 1.4 percent tax the schools are supposed to pay.) The tax only affects about 30 schools but is expected to bring in $200 million annually. Six Republicans have joined five Democrats to co-sponsor a bill to repeal the tax. —L.J.

Before the bell

  • A fourth Wheaton College football player pleaded guilty this week to charges stemming from a 2016 hazing incident. Only one student remains scheduled for trial next year.
  • The University of Wyoming is taking a beating over its new advertising slogan: “The world needs more cowboys.” Critics say that leaves out women and people of color, since, you know, all cowboys are white men. The school, whose mascot is a cowboy, is standing by the ad campaign … so far.
  • The American Federation of Teachers awarded Hillary Clinton its Women’s Rights Award over the weekend. About 3,000 educators attended the group’s convention in Pittsburgh. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., also spoke to the group, urging union members to rally for Democrats in November. “As this administration wages an all-out attack on our democracy, your voices are needed more than ever,” Warren said. —L.J.
Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.

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  • WORLD User 181361
    Posted: Mon, 07/23/2018 01:01 pm

    All cowboys are not white or male in the real world...hope the university of Wyoming holds strong because the world most certainly needs more of them!