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Restorative Justice: Shutting Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline

North High School students in Denver demonstrate against the school-to-prison pipeline during the Dignity in Schools 2015 Week of Action. (Padres & Jóvenes Unidos)
North High School students in Denver demonstrate against the school-to-prison pipeline during the Dignity in Schools 2015 Week of Action. (Padres & Jóvenes Unidos)
November 7, 2016

LEADVILLE, CO – A school district in rural Colorado is shifting its approach to student discipline in an effort to keep more kids in school and out of trouble - part of a growing trend away from '90s-era zero-tolerance policies that fed a rise in what's been called the school-to-prison pipeline.

Ben Cairns, new principal of Lake County High School in Leadville, said a combination of stricter rules, clear consequences and the softer approach of restorative justice help shift a school's culture, whereas suspending students often leads to more risky behaviors and much worse long-term outcomes.

"Rather than teaching kids and working through things with kids and talking through things with kids and helping kids learn and grow from their mistakes,” Cairns said, "it often puts kids on a track out of school.”

Instead of imposing automatic suspensions or long-term expulsions when kids break the rules, he said, teachers guide them through a "restorative justice” process, where they resolve conflicts by learning how their actions impact others, and are held accountable in meaningful ways.

Principal Cairns worked with staff to recognize and talk openly about implicit biases. A recent Justice Policy Institute report found zero-tolerance policies increased suspension rates disproportionately for students of color, and frequently led to their first contact with the criminal justice system.

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, said unions are shifting their focus to the impact of institutional racism on kids.

"Educators have a very important role to play in terms of reducing the school-to-prison pipeline and decreasing both suspensions and expulsions in Colorado public schools,” Dallman said.

Research has shown that incarceration can have profound effects on the health and well-being of communities, beyond just the individual students and their families. Dallman said that allocating more resources to address students' social and emotional health would help reduce discipline problems.

A school discipline report card released by the advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos determined Lake County's former discipline practices led to some of the state's highest out-of-school suspension rates, especially among Latino students. Cairns said the report has helped the school improve its policies.

"The big shift came from community input and the community saying, 'Our children are not being treated fairly by the system,’” Cairns said. "We need to have more nuanced and thoughtful ways of approaching, you know, misconduct in schools."

He said using the restorative-justice approach has given the school flexibility and prioritizes relationships in order to teach respect, forgiveness and accountability.

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This story was produced with original reporting from Alan Gottlieb for The Colorado Trust. Find out more at The Colorado Trust.org.


Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO