Mirror, Mirror…Who is the Fairest of Them All? Beyond Zero Tolerance: Teachers’ Perspectives of Restorative Justice
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The phenomenon of overrepresentation is defined as a specific racial/ethnic group being disproportionately represented in comparison to their overall presence in the general population. As such, there is an overrepresentation in discipline referrals and suspensions documented specifically with students of color, lower SES students, students who identify as LGTBQI, and students with disabilities in public K-12 schools. For a growing number of students the enforcement of zero tolerance policies, which operate on a punitive continuum, often leads to removing youth either temporarily or permanently from school. As such, zero tolerance practices marginalize young people and push them toward a greater probability of delinquency and crime; they in effect form a school-to-prison pipeline. To stop fueling the pipeline with young cohorts of students, a restorative justice (RJ) approach to traditional discipline is implemented. However, sometimes even after RJ program implementation, these students continue to be disciplined more often than their White peers. Even after controlling for gender, socioeconomic status (SES), and ability, disproportionally for students of color continues. Hence, educator racism and bias are cited as causes (Alexander, 2010; Civil Rights Project, 2000; Cross, 2001; Elgart, 2016; Equal Justice Society, 2016; Hines-Datiri & Carter Andrews, 2017; Irving & Hudley, 2005; Kendall, 2006; Monroe, 2005; Noguera, 2003; Skiba, Simmons, Ritter, Gibb, Rausch, Cuadrado, & Chung, 2008; Tate, 1997; Vavrus & Cole, 2002; Wadhwa, 2016).
The findings of this study indicate that a RJ approach to discipline is successful in lowering teacher-written referrals and improving school climate and attendance rates. Participants described their school system, which was in the third year of RJ implementation school wide, as successful when RJ approaches to discipline were utilized, but very challenging and needing improvement. Teacher participants demonstrated an understanding that building relationships was paramount in improving students’ attitude toward school when improved behavior and attendance was the goal. While there was some participant hesitation to conduct higher tertiary level mediation circles, all participants did attempt to use social and emotional learning (SEL) strategies and RJ circles in the classroom, but mainly at the Tier 1 level. All teacher participants advocated using RJ methods of discipline to ensure a safe learning environment and believed RJ approaches were more racially/ethnically equitable than exclusionary discipline and improved school climate. White privilege, racism and bias were noted as being part of what makes up the decision to discipline; thus, as evidenced by the findings, there is a need for implicit race/ethnicity and bias training, which needs to accompany RJ training.