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Can a Law Change Society?

The Government has made attempts to address disparities that have existed in education since Brown vs. Board of Education, IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the 1990 ADA. With each law enactment, the objective was to remediate the disproportionality of a protected group. However, at no time did these laws attempt such a noble aspiration as Michigan House Bill 5619, which seeks to repair harm to interpersonal relationships, address root causes in conflicts, have individuals take responsibility for their actions, and develop empathy for others. So, can a law change society? Yes, in three ways:  

House Bill 5619 requires school administrators to consider Restorative Justice Practices as discipline measures in interpersonal conflicts and other non-threatening behaviors, versus the traditional methods of suspension and expulsion. This new law has supporters optimistic for the future of Michigan’s at-risk youth, and has leading educators talking about what needs to change.

Restorative Justice (RJ) is a discipline approach that focuses on healing conflicts and behaviors as opposed to just punishing them. Instead of strictly relying on suspensions and expulsions as a means to teach students, RJ expects offenders to make things right, both with who they have harmed as well as with the broader community.

Restorative Justice focuses on four key features: respect, responsibility, repair, and re-integration. It encourages students to listen to others’ opinions while taking responsibility for their own actions. It teaches them how to develop skills to repair relationships with those they have harmed, and then supports them through a process that resolves the issue and helps to ensure the behavior won’t be repeated. Its principles are founded on healing and empathy, which speaks to fundamental human values, ethics, and practices.

If the victim is comfortable with it, RJ encourages a face-to-face conference between them and the offending party in order to allow both sides to air their feelings. This is also when the offender would accept responsibility for their actions and be granted a consequence, such as an apology, community service, or restitution payments.

We need strong school administrators to be the change leaders within their communities, introducing the concept to their districts and helping to have a positive impact on our students. By showing how quickly the benefits of RJ can affect students, these leaders will contribute to the betterment of our schools and our educational system as a whole.

So, if what we have always done isn’t working, we should probably keep doing it, right? Wrong!

It is time to create a new system that will contribute to a positive school culture and climate while at the same time teaching students concepts of fairness and justice. Traditional models are overly punitive and can damage a student’s self-esteem, not to mention hurt their chances of graduating from high school, which ultimately contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. In addition, African American males, students who receive special education services, and other minority groups are disproportionately affected by current disciplinary policies.

We need to give students the necessary skills to be productive members of our society, and this begins with school innovation.  Restorative Justice could not only be the answer to our expulsion problem, but to our greater problem of national violence and crime, as well.

But how can you as an administrator find the time to create such a revolutionary and impactful system? You don’t have to! Restorative Justice has been a successful discipline approach for years, and has the research and data to prove it! RJ requires some training for yourself and your staff, but can be quickly and effectively implemented.

As we continue to learn about the negative impacts of punitive consequences, like suspension and expulsion, it has become urgent for us to make drastic changes within our schools and districts to better meet the needs of our students.

It is necessary for us to learn from our past mistakes and to adapt and evolve our current practices. Restorative Justice can transform an instance of misconduct into a learning opportunity, in turn building strong relationships between students, staff, and families. By adopting these practices in your buildings, you will hold students accountable for their actions, and teach them how to make amends to those they have wronged.

When we treat students with respect and empathy, and teach them the impact of their decisions, we are cultivating concepts of fairness and justice within them, thereby decreasing the probability that a similar situation will recur. This not only benefits our schools’ climates and cultures, but it benefits our broader communities and cities, as well.

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