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#abq4ward: Restorative justice could make a difference for children in school

Colton Shone
September 14, 2017 06:49 AM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Children are the future of Albuquerque. They will be policy makers, taxpayers and even have a say in how people live their lives. A good education is paramount to set them up for success. 

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However, the state has the worst graduation rate in the country. But what if that could change that by examining how kids in schools are disciplined?  Maybe the solution could lie in two words: restorative justice.

"It's a way to look at discipline without actually kicking kids out of school,” Kristine Meurer, the executive director for the Student Family and Community Supports Division at Albuquerque Public Schools.

Meurer said restorative justice involves relationship-building and mediating between fighting students or an action plan between an unruly student and teacher. It's seen as a positive discipline rather than something negative like suspension.

"The more often a student is suspended, the higher the chance they'll end up in prison," Meurer said. "By reducing those suspensions, it should begin to reduce that school to prison pipeline."

APS just received a $4.3 million grant from the National Institute of Justice to fund restorative justice research at a dozen middle schools for four years.

The schools being focused on for the first two years are the Jefferson, Kennedy, George Sanchez, Truman, Ernie Pyle and Taylor middle schools. The following two years will be at Grant, Hayes, Jackson, Polk, Washington and Tony Hillerman middle schools.

Julianna Garcia, 16-year-old, said she dropped out of school and things went downhill from there. She found herself caught up in the juvenile court system charged with possession and battery on a household member. She and her mother believe if they had positive interventions at school, maybe they wouldn't be in this situation.

"So I got suspended and I didn't want to go back. So I haven't been in school for two years. I was out on the streets thinking I was a grown woman, thinking I could do whatever I wanted," Garcia said.

Her mother agreed that doing something like picking up trash around the school would be more helpful in keeping kids in school if they commit an infraction.

Garcia said she is trying to get her life back on track and be a better role model for her 13-year-old sister.

'I make sure she goes to school. I tell her don't follow my footsteps, cause I know I'm older and she looks up to me. So she can't follow my footsteps," she said.

Meurer said by the time most of these kids get to high school, it’s too late.  

"Kids tend to get suspended more often in middle schools,” she said.

APS data from 2011 to 2015 show 54 percent of out of school suspensions happened in middle schools, followed by 35 percent in high school, then 9 percent in elementary.

Could this idea of restorative justice actually work?

A quest for answers took a KOB news team to Denver. Lawmakers in the Colorado State Capitol established the Restorative Justice Council. Since then, it's expanded from just being in the juvenile court system to schools all across the state

"We were one of the first districts in the nation to really embrace these sorts of practices," said Eldridge Greer, the associate chief of student equity and opportunity with Denver Public Schools.

DPS has 92,000 students. Greer said over the last 10 years, the suspension rate dropped 67 percent during a period of massive growth. He said students who had restorative intervention were also 70 percent less likely to have another infraction.

"Our research and national research really shows that even being suspended one time can alter the trajectory pretty powerfully for our kids. Both in terms of increased dropout, lack of academic attainment, lack of connection and engagement to school,” he said. 

Jen Gallegos sits on the Colorado Restorative Justice Council. She works as a school specialist and trains staff at schools in restorative practices.

"We had a student who did some damage to a library, had snuck in at night and vandalized the library. So he spent time repairing and fixing and time with the librarian and working on that relationship and repairing all the damage that he did in that library," she said.

She said restorative practices aren't appropriate for offenses like sexual assault, weapons or drugs brought to school. But she said whenever mediation can happen, it should.

"I think it teaches students how to manage conflicts in a positive way, and frankly it teaches adults how to manage conflict in a positive way," she said.

APS officials say this is a big planning year for them. They hired a manager and coordinator to work with schools to find what works and what doesn't. Their next challenge is how to figure out a way to sustain these practices and move it to elementary and high schools in the future.  

Credits

Colton Shone

Copyright 2017 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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