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Schools across the country are moving away from an era of zero-tolerance policies and shifting toward methods that involve restorative justice, encouraging students to resolve their differences by talking to each other rather than resorting to violence. In New York City, five schools that have implemented this system are already seeing results. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson reports.
Let's do a quick check-in — just give me one word on how your week has been.
In a 9th grade civics class in Brooklyn, New York, Erica Wright is encouraging students to talk to each other and build trust.. It is part of a new program known as "Restorative Justice". A team from the nonprofit Center for Court Innovation" works at the high schools on Canarsie Educational Campus where the majority of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. The campus is in an area that has traditionally had one of the highest suspension rates in the city.
Our students have incredibly adult sized problems but don't always have adult sized resources.
Mischael Cetout is a restorative justice coordinator.
MISCHAEL CETOUT, RESTORATIVE JUSTICE COORDINATOR:
What restorative justice allows us to do is to look beyond the behavior and look at some of the root causes and see how can we prevent this from turning into something much bigger. So now if a student gets into a fight, the question isn't how bad was the fight and how many days is that suspension worth. The question is 'Well what do we do to make sure that you don't have another fight.'
ERICA WRIGHT, RESTORATIVE JUSTICE COORDINATOR:
The last time we met you guys had a conflict with each other.
Just into its first year, the project is part of citywide effort to reduce suspensions and increase safety.
So what's been going on? How's been your week?
This is called a "harm circle," where Erica Wright mediates conflicts between students. She starts by asking a question to break the ice.
My week has been kinda calm…
Passing a baton known as the "talking piece," junior Tonye Diri and freshman Shane Dover are discussing what happened after school one day in February …
…I was walking on Rockaway Parkway and he had came, he hit me and we got in an altercation.
I came up to him and tried to discuss with him but I didn't take it the way I was supposed to, I actually put matters in my own hands and I ended up fighting him.
We have the time to where we can actually facilitate a real conversation. And it's not like OK we just don't want you guys to fight. But it's like what was the root of the fight? Why were you guys fighting?
How have you guys been since that time…
TONYE DIRI, JUNIOR:
The way I handle myself is — usually I handle it with violence — but ever since I encountered the mediation circle, I've learned how to control my anger and just talk about it. Because talking doesn't hurt. It's better to use your words than to use violence.
The circle helped the students realize the root cause of the conflict was simply a misunderstanding.
SHANE DOVER, FRESHMAN:
We really had a lot of similarities. Like we both played football –like the same football players.
Ever since it's been resolved, I've been seeing Shane around… I've been treating him like he's one of my bros, like I've known him all my life.
We hang out sometimes at the park. And if the conflict wasn't resolved then it would probably still be ongoing. (Erica nodding)
Change doesn't happen overnight.
Candice Fagan is a dean at Urban Action Academy, the Canarsie-campus school Shane Dover attends. She has noticed a measurable difference not only with him, but with many of her students since the program started this school year.
CANDICE FAGAN, DEAN, URBAN ACTION ACADEMY:
I see a lot more respect in the building. It's not just not a feeling. I see the levels of respect that students have for one another.
it's different because you can laugh and you can cry with your best friend…
Students in this 9th grade civics class are talking qualities they value most in relationships.
CANDICE FAGAN With that happening in the classroom it's less likely for you to fight somebody that you now build a relationship with. And authentic relationships — not just "Hi, my name is. My favorite color is blue." We go in depth. We go with feelings and how do we handle conflict and anger.
And Fagan says the program has contributed to a significant drop in the number of suspensions at Urban Action Academy.
Last year this time we were at 158 suspensions. This year we're at 37. Now although we did have 37 incidents this year, how do we repair the harm that's done? How do we let both students know that they are valuable assets to the community and we want to bring them back into the community so that they can continue to be successful academically? MEGAN THOMPSON: Multiple academic studies have found that suspensions makes it more likely for that student to dropout of high school. The trend particularly affects students of color.
The U.S. Department of Education has found that nationwide, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students. And a 2011 study of nearly one million students in Texas found that those students who were suspended or expelled were nearly three times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system within the next year.
Coordinator Mischael Cetout argues that the restorative justice model can help prevent kids from ending up in prison down the road…not just in his school, but across the nation.
We have the largest incarcerated population in the world and that is not going to change unless we start doing things differently. I think restorative justice is needed everywhere but specifically at Canarsie. You can not necessarily provide everything that a kid needs but what restorative justice does is it gives you the option of not doing more harm.
in December, Cetout helped mediate a circle with Jaycob Merritt, a senior who fought with and injured another student two years ago when he was a sophomore.
JAYCOB MERRITT, SENIOR:
She used to make fun of my hair. She used to call me names. Usually I would deal with it but it was one day I couldn't really put up with it anymore. I was fed up.
Merritt and the other student fought, and she ended up going to the hospital. Police officers came to the school and arrested Merritt.
I was nervous. I was scared. I didn't know what was going to happen. You know I didn't know if I was going to spend the night in the precinct. I never been in that situation before. So it was just it was scary for me.
But ultimately the other student– who did not agree to our interview request — dropped the charges. Administrators suspended Merritt for a week.
This all occurred before the school had started harm circles. The tension between the two students bubbled up again on a school trip last year. Merritt's girlfriend, Harmony Collazzo, had a verbal confrontation with the other student.
HARMONY COLLAZO, SENIOR:
So we had to be separated on the bus …
Then, Collazzo, Merritt, and the student agreed to talk in a circle with Mischael Cetout..
It provided a safe environment for me to talk to her and her to talk to me without there being you know a big argument. You know I was able to put my side of the story which she wasn't able to hear.
Jacob Merritt also had a chance to apologize.
They get arrested and suspended but they actually never get to say I'm sorry. And so for Jaycob he got that opportunity and for the other young lady that's what she really wanted to hear.
I always felt like any day she could say something or I would say something and you know a bomb will go off, but since the mediation I felt like things have been you know defused.
Watch the Full Episode
Laura Fong shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of topics, including U.S. politics, education, the arts and urban transit. She also covers breaking news for the Saturday and Sunday broadcasts. Before joining NewsHour Weekend, Laura worked on the first three seasons of the CNN documentary series "Inside Man" with Morgan Spurlock. Through Teach for America, Laura taught first grade for two years in Houston. She has a B.A. in electronic media from the University of Oregon.
Connie Kargbo has been working in the media field since 2007 producing content for television, radio, and the web. As a field producer at PBS NewsHour Weekend, she is involved in all aspects of the news production process from pitching story ideas to organizing field shoots to scripting feature pieces. Before joining the weekend edition of PBS Newshour, Connie was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand where she trained Thai English teachers.
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