Commentary: Why we need restorative justice in Utah’s schools

This year I am sponsoring a resolution urging restorative practices across Utah’s K-12 education system. In many of our schools today, the way we respond to disciplinary problems is often with a punitive response. Such so-called “zero tolerance” policies often result in students being “pushed out” of our school system and into the prison pipeline over time.

In Utah, this problem is especially significant among at-risk and ethnic minority students, where data show that disciplinary actions against students of color are disproportionate to population size. Black, Hispanic, American Indian, Pacific islander and even students with disabilities are much more likely to be suspended and expelled for relatively minor infractions here in Utah. Offending students are often removed from classrooms, where they fall behind, and many may drop-out.

We need to address the root of students’ misbehavior. With a punishment-only response students risk being funneled into the “school-to-prison” pipeline, and into our corrections system. And who pays for this? We all do. We pay the costs for keeping these soon-to-be adults incarcerated or monitored on parole. We pay with the lost economic potential those youth could have given as good employees and citizens. We pay with systemic inequality, disenfranchisement, and more dangerous, more fearful communities.

Restorative justice, on the other hand, gives our schools a different, more effective philosophical approach to managing student behavior problems. It’s not just another program for educators. It’s a different way of thinking and interacting. It involves forming “harm circles” or “reflection circles” that allow everyone involved to engage in better, more fulfilling, meaningful conversations. Classrooms become spaces for students to self-advocate and build conflict resolution skills to negotiate interpersonal relationships at school, work and home.

Under a restorative justice model, when disruptions like fighting, harassment or vandalism occur, students aren’t necessarily removed from the classroom or the school. Rather than getting pushed out, a troubled student gets pulled in with classmates, teachers, parents and counselors, who together address the problem. Together, they find resolutions on their own terms.

Last year, schools in the Salt Lake City School District, such as Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, began implementing restorative practices. Each school decides how this approach can best meet its own unique needs, but the policies have been implemented across elementary, middle and high schools. Some are already seeing positive results, like decreased rates of recidivism and an increase in student attendance.

In fact, school-based citations (which can be given for conduct ranging from disturbing the peace to drug or weapons possession) are down districtwide from 503 in the 2013-14 school year to 112 last year (2016-17). Troubled students are learning to “self-advocate” and manage their own conduct in classrooms. Students are being kept out of the school to prison pipeline. And, perhaps most importantly, students are receiving help early to prevent harmful behavior later on. Restorative justice practices are changing lives in SLCSD, and these practices can also make a difference in other school districts statewide.

What’s more, data from other states – such as Colorado and California - that have implemented restorative practices have shown it reduces costs on our corrections system, our economy and our society at large. Depending on how different schools and districts choose to implement it, there may, of course, be up-front costs for professional development or hiring restorative coordinators for schools. However, in time, these social investments save money in many ways.

Hours of classroom time can be recaptured for learning, instead of spending time dealing with misbehaviors. Let’s be clear: Restorative justice is not “soft on crime.” On the contrary, it’s teaching accountability. Restorative justice is about being proactive, rather than reactive. It’s about helping our children learn to collectively and responsibly resolve conflicts, as opposed to passively relying on a punitive, outside party to inflict corrective actions.

Last year, our state took a positive step by passing HB239 as an attempt to decriminalize student misbehavior and provide services for all youth to be successful. But changing old habits and practices takes time. Teachers and administrators need resources and professional development. They need to see tangible examples to feel comfortable with what restorative justice is and how it really works.

All of Utah’s K-12 schools would benefit from a restorative justice model. Through this approach, Utah’s schools will see benefits and long-term savings as we redirect troubled youth away from our corrections systems and instead raise them up as part of a more equitable, less punitive and safer community.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, represents District 23 in the Utah House of Representatives.