School disciplinary policies and practices can serve to push our children further away — away from school on brief suspensions, then permanently to alternative schools, then out of school altogether, then into juvenile detention, and eventually out of the community and into distant adult correctional facilities.
Rather than students choosing to “drop out,” the problem is more accurately a matter of school pushout, which the national “Dignity in Schools” campaign is targeting, with endorsements from national civic, educational and professional organizations, including the National Education Association.
So what is to be done?
One of the most hopeful approaches to plugging the school to prison pipeline, and one of those recommended by the Dignity in Schools campaign to address school pushout, is known as “restorative justice” (or sometimes “restorative discipline” in the school setting). Restorative justice involves various strategies and programs that care for victims and address the harm done to them, hold offenders more truly responsible and accountable, provide for some sort of restitution by the offender to the victim, and make possible the healing and restoration of relationships.
The focus of restorative justice is not merely on the law or rule broken and what punishment the offender deserves, but on what harm has been done and how it can be addressed in a way that restores the loss to the victim, while also restoring the offender to the school or community.
Successful models exist throughout the U.S. and in other countries. New Zealand had the highest juvenile incarceration rate in the world, but after establishing restorative justice as the default juvenile justice system, they experienced a two-thirds reduction in juvenile crime, closed 18 juvenile detention centers and saved millions of dollars.