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Prone to asthma attacks, Christian Wimberly wisely brought his inhaler to campus with a doctor’s note to verify he needed it. But when searched by school police at his high school, he was told he couldn’t have the inhaler because “it’s technically a drug" and to keep it in the nurse’s office. “But the nurse only visited the school once a week,” says Wimberly, which meant that he was out of luck four out of five days.
One afternoon, Wimberly became winded after sitting in the sun during P.E. He needed his inhaler, and the nurse was off campus that day. So he called the only person he knew he could rely on: “I had to call my mom to bring it,” he recounts. Unsure why his school chose to hire a police officer but not a full-time nurse, Wimberly wrote a song, “Why We Need School Police?”
Today he is a freshman at CSUN and the co-founder of Youth Empowerment Solidarity (Y.E.S.), a Los Angeles-based group designed to "bridge the gap between Black and Brown youth" and advocate for just public policies. He and other advocates for school reform argue that police presence in schools and punitive disciplinary practices should be replaced with restorative justice practices and the staff to implement them. The advocates believe the implementation of these practices in LAUSD schools provide critical insight for the state of California, which is currently voting on crime-related propositions — Prop 17 (which would restore the right to vote to people convicted of felonies who are on parole), Prop 20 (which expands the list of crimes that can be treated as felonies) and Prop 25 (a referendum to decide whether to replace cash bail with risk assessments for suspects awaiting trial).
What is Restorative Justice?
Restorative justice (RJ) practitioners believe that perpetrators of crimes are best reformed through reconciliation with victims and the wider community. In schools, this means that students who violate school rules might attend group sessions where they learn to take responsibility for their actions and their resulting impact on others. The responsible party and the injured party might meet face to face to discuss the harm that was done, as well as how to bring about resolution — and when possible, restoration. RJ asks, “What is the most just thing to do here, for both parties?” Through restorative justice practices, kids are counseled, not suspended. They are taught how to correct problematic behavior. They are pushed into the school community more deeply instead of being pushed out via suspension or expulsion.
Restorative justice advocates say that transformation is at the heart of the practice: “How do we make people whole again from the harm that has happened?” asks David C. Turner III, coalition manager of the Brothers, Sons, Selves (BSS), a coalition of community-based organizations in Los Angeles and Long Beach committed to public policies that support boys of color.
The School Climate Bill of Rights
Disturbed by the suspension, expulsion, and arrest trends in LAUSD and throughout the nation, BSS created The School Climate Bill of Rights, which lists the rights every student in LAUSD should be guaranteed, namely “the right to safe and healthy school environments that minimize the involvement of law enforcement, probation and the juvenile and criminal justice system.” The Bill of Rights (B.O.R.) includes school-wide positive behavior intervention and support; restorative justice approaches to resolve conflict; the availability of school-based arrest and citation data; and a system to file a complaint if rights are violated.
Turner says that BSS championed the B.O.R. to the district for a full two years before it was adopted because “young people deserve protection” just like teachers receive protection through their union.
Through the B.O.R., LAUSD banned “willful defiance” suspensions and expulsions, which were doled out for student behavior labeled “defiant and disruptive.” The policy was problematic for a few reasons. First and foremost, what qualified as defiant was subjective. Under the policy, some students were suspended for wearing hats and chewing gum. Minor offenses could lead to major consequences. Additionally, students of color and students with disabilities were punished disproportionately under the policy, according to the Brookings Institute. Plus, punitive practices don’t work; instead, they contribute to recidivism.
BSS helped to secure millions of dollars in funding for the implementation of restorative justice in LAUSD schools, which allows schools to hire restorative justice coordinators, who oversee its implementation on campus, and restorative justice teacher coordinators, who train other teachers to implement the practice on campus.
The results were noteworthy. Suspensions in the district decreased by 76% between the 2011-12 and 2017-18 school years, according to state data. Turner notes that graduation rates increased by 13% because more students were allowed to stay in class to learn than were pushed out of class to be penalized.
Kids and Criminalization on Campus
The decrease of suspensions and expulsions is just a part of the goal. Reform advocates and restorative justice practitioners seek to change the culture of schools that often criminalizes students of color instead of showing them compassion. Turner says the goal is “to make sure our children aren’t treated like problems before they’re treated like people.”
Wimberly concurs, adding that he’s seen students approached by school police just for selling food on campus (which is a violation of school policy). “If you have food on you, they will treat it like it’s drugs,” he says, noting that students are treated like criminals when they haven’t done anything criminal. “All they were doing was selling a bag of chips,” Wimberly laments.
School reformers say that zero-tolerance policies embraced by school districts throughout the country in the 1990s contributed to a rise in students being punished and suspended for the tiniest of infractions. The proliferation of metal detectors, random searches and the presence of police officers on campus ensued.
LAUSD has its own police force on campuses — the Los Angeles School Police Department (LASPD) — which has more than 400 police officers, 100 school safety officers and 30 support staff. It is “the largest independent school police force in the country.” Yet studies show that police presence in schools often causes more harm than good. A 2016 study released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California found that tasking school discipline to police officers results in disproportionately high rates of arrests of poor, minority students. Additionally, researchers at UCLA found that from 2014 to 2017, 25% of citations and arrests for “minor” legal infractions on school grounds were given to Black students, even though they constitute less than 10% of LAUSD’s student population. As a result, the ACLU recommends that schools refrain from having police officers permanently assigned to their campuses.
Restorative justice advocates agree and maintain that police presence on school campuses pushes children of color out of school and into the criminal justice system. “We have a system that punishes people for behavior without looking at the root causes,” says Turner.
The restorative justice model, in contrast with the school-to-prison pipeline, saves children instead of sentencing them. It answers the questions Wimberly asks: “Why does it need to be police? Why can’t it be mental health professionals?” RJ practices address the root causes of student infractions: Did a student hit a classmate because he was bullied? Was it because he’s dealing with undiagnosed mental or academic disorders? Was it because he's being beaten at home? With restorative justice in schools, cops are out, and counselors, social workers and mental health practitioners are in. RJ takes a communal approach to address behavioral issues.
Turner insists that this model is better than “simply throwing someone in a cage." RJ champions say that the model reduces suspensions and engagement with law enforcement while increasing the sense of community and safety on campus. Also, RJ advocates believe this type of change is possible not only for schools but also for neighborhoods, cities and states.
Propositions on the November 3rd Ballot
Three propositions would affect RJ practices throughout the state, but each very differently. California Proposition 20, the Criminal Sentencing, Parole and DNA Collection Initiative, would add crimes to the list of violent felonies; mandate DNA collection for some misdemeanors; and “recategorize certain types of theft and fraud crimes as wobblers (chargeable as misdemeanors or felonies).”
Like the school-to-prison pipeline, the proposition would create more paths to prison. RJ practitioners say the passage of the amendment would reverse years of hard work to decrease prison populations throughout the state. “It’s a prison scam to roll back progress on Prop 47 & Prop 57,” claims Turner. The California Federation of Teachers, California Labor Federation, the ACLU of California and former Governor Jerry Brown (D) oppose Prop 20.
California Proposition 17, Voting Rights Restoration for Persons on Parole Amendment, would help those convicted of crimes and the broader community. If passed, the prop would allow people who are on parole for felony convictions to vote. It would put them on the path to becoming more productive members of society immediately after serving their sentences. Supporters of Prop 17 include the League of Women Voters of California, California Council of Churches, the California Democratic Party and the Libertarian Party of California. Prop 17 says that folks who’ve been incarcerated matter. Their votes and voices matter.
California Proposition 25, Replace Cash Bail with Risk Assessments Referendum, is a tricky proposition. It would replace the cash bail system, which has kept poor, minority defendants from being able to post bail and remain free until their trials; however, it would replace cash bail with risk assessment, which would determine whether a defendant could be released pretrial, and under which conditions. Supporters of Prop 25 say that it would provide more economic and racial equity in the criminal justice system, but some opponents argue that it would also give judges and courts more power over defendants’ fates. Turner says it’s ridiculous to think that “risk assessment will be just in an unjust system.” RJ advocates are split on the issue, as are key organizations throughout the state: The California Teachers Association supports Prop 25, but the ACLU of Southern California opposes it.
As voters cast their ballots this November and schools work to educate students during a global pandemic, a famous quote from the late South African President Nelson Mandela remains true: "The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children.” If Los Angeles and other districts throughout the state continue to implement RJ practices, they will clearly show students, especially children of color, that their lives matter. These children will grow up knowing that their voices, problems and perspectives matter; if they injure another individual and the community, they can sit down together in a circle, discuss the implications of their actions and work to make things right. They can be restored to the community, not separated from it. By their example, societies also begin to see that a different kind of justice — not punitive — can put our communities on the road to healing the deep fissures and inequalities that have only become more apparent in this pandemic.
Top Image: (L-R) Jacob "Blacc" Jackson, youth leader with the Youth Justice Coalition and Brothers, Sons, Selves Coalition; Joshua Ham, BSS Coalition Alumni and Director of the Healing Circle LA and Christian Flagg, BSS Coordinator and Youth Organizer with Community Coalition | Courtesy of Brothers, Sons, Selves