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Perspective: Restorative justice cannot combat the tide of school violence

A rash of juvenile crime and violence raises questions about policies designed to reduce school suspensions

The view of an empty classroom at P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021 in New York.
Brittainy Newman, Associated Press

“Ask your neighbors how they’re doing. And give care and love and really try to provide as much support as you can.” That was what Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said after Patricia Lampron, a Dorchester high school principal, was beaten unconscious by one of her students earlier this month.

After a staff member approached a student and asked her to leave school grounds, that student, according to the local NBC affiliate, “allegedly became enraged, grabbing (Lampron’s) hair and repeatedly striking her in the face.” The principal has been released from the hospital and the perpetrator has been arraigned for the assault, but this is not an incident that should be easily forgotten because it is part of a larger trend of violence by young people that is happening both inside schools and out. And it is not one likely to be fixed by more “care” and “support” alone.

Just as the story of a girl who was sexually assaulted in a Loudoun County, Virginia, school outraged many voters in last week’s election, this attack has made many parents wonder what is going on in our kids’ schools.

Like many schools around the country Boston Public Schools have implemented a restorative justice program and significantly reduced the punishment of poor behavior. According to the Boston Herald, BPS “suspended 743 students in 2010 for offenses ranging from sexual assaults to fights to drug and weapons possession. … In one year, that number dropped more than 80 percent, to 137 in 2011, and then to 120 in 2012.” This phenomenon extends well beyond Boston, and I suspect the students and staff end up paying the largest price for this emergent trend.

A recent article for Education Week observes that “following the return of most U.S. schoolchildren to full-time, in-person learning, a raft of anecdotal reports indicate that violence may be rising in K-12 schools.” And the rise of juvenile crime has not gone unnoticed by the public, especially in cities. Homicide cases in juvenile courts jumped 35% between 2014 and 2018. An Associated Press article on the spike in violent crime among youth in Connecticut, for instance, noted an increase in car thefts, robberies and shootings involving juveniles.

Last year in Chicago, there were 1,400 carjackings. Chicago police say juveniles were involved in nearly half of the incidents. In March a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old girl were charged with murder in the fatal carjacking of an Uber driver after the pair used a stun gun on him.

Some attributed the rise to kids not being in school as a result of the pandemic. But even in places where schools were largely open starting in the fall of 2020, things were bad. Juvenile crime is on the rise in Mitchell, South Dakota, according to a recent report. In 2019, there were 13 cases of serious juvenile allegations. In 2020, that number more than tripled to 43.

Just as the rise in crime in many cities seems connected to the “defund the police” movement, so the rise in violence inside of schools has sometimes correlated with a lack of enforcement of behavioral standards in schools and a turn away from detentions and suspensions toward more “restorative justice.”

As with the defund the police movement, the reduction of disciplinary action in schools can be traced in part to renewed attention on racial disparities in disciplinary action. The assumption was that if Black children are being suspended more often than white children, it’s because of a structurally racist disciplinary system.

But, it may not be the disciplinary system that’s to blame. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague Max Eden has noted, “Students who come from a single-family household are twice as likely to get suspended. Black students are about three times as likely to come from a single-family household. They’re about three times as likely to get suspended.”

The decrease in disciplinary action means that students of all races have suffered. Not only has violence increased but, not surprisingly, academic performance has worsened. Eden points to significant declines in test scores from Pennsylvania to California after schools implemented restorative justice programs.

He is not unsympathetic to the ideas behind restorative justice. “It comes from a good place, because when you hear that there’s a student who’s coming from these traumatic backgrounds, you want to try and reach them rather than just punish them. … But in practice, what tends to happen, what I’ve found in school districts around the country is that the goal for school administrators and school district bureaucrats becomes simply lower suspensions.”

While many observers say that suspensions are not teaching kids anything, that they are not rehabilitative, they do have one significant effect — they get the attention of parents, who suddenly find that their child cannot be in school. For parents of older teenagers who can be left alone or whose parents are less concerned, maybe suspensions won’t have an impact. But suspensions have long served as a warning sign to parents that things are serious. For better or worse, many parents assume that if there is something going wrong at school, the school is handling it and they don’t need to get involved. But these disciplinary infractions often need the intervention of family members, not just school officials.

Fear for a child’s safety at school is regularly cited among parents’ top concerns about education. A 2018 poll, suggested that at least a third of parents were worried about it, with the number was more than 40% among urban parents, nonwhite parents, and those without a college degree. Patricia Lampron’s experience is another reason to think they’re right to be scared.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.”