Restorative Justice in Schools: Decriminalizing Our Youth
In Miami, the majority of students arrested each year are Black, even though they only make up 27% of the student population. A unjustifiably broad and grossly unjust interpretation of zero tolerance policy on violence in schools has disrupted and interrupted education for so many students, and sent so many more on what is termed the "schoolhouse to jailhouse track"?, that approximately half of Miami's high school students fail to graduate.
Power U is training youth to organize fellow students around the issue of criminalization of students and its impact on education and learning in minority communities. We are using the organizing model that has proven successful for us in past campaigns. The focus of this organizing effort is to collect data and raise awareness about the harmful effects of zero tolerance. Power U is combining the voice of the local students with that of students and youth from around the country through powerful alliances and partnerships. This is an issue that directly affects minority youth across the country and ultimately harms us all; instead of the education system producing productive citizens, it creates "criminals" and obliterates hope of economic opportunity for yet another generation.
While the organizing efforts advocate for the end of zero tolerance, Power U is also working with students to propose alternatives. We are demanding the institution of the restorative justice model as policy in all Miami public schools. Instead of transfering the problem to the criminal justice system, restorative justice requires those affected by the behavior or incident to discuss what happened, seek ways to make amends and repair any harm, and to reintegrate the offender back into the population. Not only can this model reduce suspensions and arrests and increase graduation rates, it teaches young people important negotiation and conflict resolution skills that can be applied outside the school environment and into adulthood. This approach has been successful in other schools in the country and has been proposed by the students to the administration. Power U will continue with its advocacy and organizing efforts until this approach to discipline is agreed to by the administration and fully implemented.
It is important that it is the voice of the students being heard and that students feel confident to speak. That is why Power U trains selects youth to receive Leadership Training. Training is provided both in-house through the College of Leadership, and from other experienced training institutions in other states. Students have the opportunity to participate in peer exchanges and present at national forums. We have also hired two of these youth leaders as interns where they gain invaluable experience by implementing this program. The results are inspiring. Students are conducting interviews and focus groups, analyzing their findings, and developing conclusions. Using the pubic speaking skills they have learned, they are presenting findings, recommendations, and demands to school boards, administrations, and plans and fellow students.
We want our young people to have a chance at receiving a good education and a chance to pursue decent economic opportunities after. Schools must return to being a safe place focused on learning and cease to be a path to prison and demoralization.