The district recently received a $4.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education, which will fund restorative justice programs at 12 middle schools over four years.
Restorative justice – a philosophy that has been gaining popularity in many large urban areas – focuses on mediation and reparations to rebuild community after an offense. It particularly aims to reduce suspensions among minority children, who are disproportionately impacted by “exclusionary discipline” and can fall behind in class as a result.
“We are hoping to ultimately change outcomes for students in terms of their behavior and their social and emotional learning,” said Katarina Sandoval, APS associate superintendent for equity and access. “We are trying to teach how to better control your emotions and how to better communicate.”
Sandoval said principals at the district’s 27 middle schools can apply to join the grant. In the next few weeks, she will select a dozen schools to participate.
Under the terms, APS will hire staff and collect initial data during the 2017-2018 academic year, then implement restorative justice discipline during the next two academic years.
Sandoval hopes to see “fewer suspensions and fewer infractions” at the end of that period. In 2020, the district will consider ways to replicate the method at every school.
APS is partnering with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, an independent, nonprofit organization, to administer the grant.
Shelly Green, executive director of the APS Student, School, and Community Service Center, said she supports restorative justice because it gives administrators more flexibility to discipline kids based on their individual circumstances.
For instance, students could be put in mediation after an argument, rather than getting in-school suspensions.
Traditionally, teachers and principals have used a discipline matrix that lays out specific punishments for particular infractions. With restorative justice practices, students can still receive detention or out-of-school suspension for serious offenses, but it is not predetermined.
“I think that flexibility will help create good citizens,” Green said. “Students, they are still kids and they are learning. This gives us another tool in our toolbox to work with them.”
In February, the APS Board of Education’s Policy and Instruction Committee voted 5-1 to add a section on restorative justice to the student handbook.
According to the handbook, the “practices are based on respect, responsibility, relationship building and relationship repairing.”
Don Duran, the lone “no” vote, said he worried that the restorative justice concept will create confusion because it is too vague to implement smoothly.
“I am a great believer in restorative justice, but the board doesn’t have a common understanding of what this means,” he said.