For Our Respondents
Why Suspensions Are Harmful
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Community Service vs Engagement
One of the three required pieces of our restorative plans for respondents is community engagement. This often gets associated with community service, but there are some key differences. Community service hours are often included in punitive punishments by the traditional criminal justice system given as an alternative to incarceration. Any alternative to incarceration of individuals is progress to some extent, but the framework of community service does not hold to the same rehabilitative purposes as community engagement does. Commonly, community service opportunities made accessible are not tailored to an individual's interest - as it is about “serving” the community. In contrast, community engagement is about engaging the individual in the community. So instead of picking up garbage on the beach, you can teach kids a sport if you are an athlete. If you are interested in mechanics as a career, see if there are apprentice programs at a shop. Community engagement is not simply about providing labor in order to learn a lesson, it is about providing meaningful opportunities that will benefit both the community and respondent.
Restorative Justice is an alternative to the traditional criminal justice system. As opposed to focusing on punitive punishment in response to an individual committing an infraction, restorative justice focuses on providing a plan that will decrease the likelihood of future instances. In the traditional justice system when someone has been charged with a crime, they are not looked at as a complete individual. When deciding on a punishment, it is systematically given simply to match with the severity of the crime. In restorative justice programs such as Peer Solutions, youth are asked about more than just the incident they were referred for. Learning about their interests, struggles, and social life gives us more context to understand what lead the youth to committing this infraction. And in doing so, the Peer Team is able to create a restorative plan much more specifically tailored to the individual than simply assigning community service, probation, or time in a juvenile detention facility. Restorative justice programs vary in their models, but at Peer Solutions we try and find the youth's strengths and give them the opportunity to explore them through their restorative plan.
Exclusionary punishment is a staple in school discipline. Suspensions and expulsions are treated as the obvious, therefore most effective, choice in resolving disruptive behavior. This presumption of the efficacy of suspensions has been challenged in recent decades, however, as mass incarceration has increased. As put by the American Research Institute, “Simply removing students from the school environment does nothing to deal with students’ and schools’ deeper issues and may lead to further disengagement from school, anger, and erosion of trust. These negative psychosocial outcomes have been shown to exacerbate recidivism”
While the culture of a school can undoubtedly be negatively impacted by disruption from students, so can excessive use of suspensions and expulsions. Studies have shown that schools with strict disciplinary policies have a negative impact on the culture and atmosphere for students as well as teachers. In addition, math and ELA credit accumulation has an inverse relationship with suspension rates for the entire student body. A school that commonly resorts to punitive punishment can weaken the relationship of trust with its students, leading to a souring community for all.
Suspensions are theoretically for the benefit of students to correct their behavior and put them back on the right track for a bright future. But findings have consistently shown that being suspended is likely to put a student at more of a disadvantage than they already were. Aside from just the loss of learning hours that come along with a suspension, it can be a detriment to long-term academic outcomes. A 2021 study found that every suspension a student received decreases the likelihood of graduating by at least two percentage points. This becomes even more damaging when we learn that school administrations disproportionately suspend students of color who are already less likely to graduate compared to their white classmates. Black students, for example, make up thirty percent of American K-12 students but comprise half of the suspensions. This disproportion only increases as punishment becomes more severe. Black students are six times more likely to receive over four weeks of suspensions.
The negative impacts of suspensions can expand far beyond the confines of a classroom or a student’s academic outcome. A strong correlation has consistently been found between students who are given punitive punishment by school officials and those who fall into the criminal justice system. This relationship is what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline. “Students suspended are three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system within the following year,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
After decades of seeing the detriments of excluding children from classrooms and the permanent effects, it can potentially have, alternatives to the traditional disciplinary system have formed. The purpose of restorative justice is to not only hold someone accountable for their actions but help repair any harm that was caused. This can be done in a variety of ways including community engagement. But another important factor of restorative justice is supporting the student in helping to divert them from reoffending by looking at them as an individual rather than their infraction. For this reason, restorative practices have been found to have higher rates of satisfaction and restitution compliance. Most importantly, studies have shown that implementing restorative justice in replacement of punitive punishment reduces recidivism by twenty-six percent.