We are the System

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Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret.Since the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School late last year, there has been an abundance of suggested policy changes to keep children safe. They include armed guards in every school building, placing police stations in schools, allowing teachers to carry guns and creating registries of kids adjudicated as delinquents. Some advocating these measures must believe that simple steps done in big ways will answer our fears.

Creating policy and legislation by anecdote is easy but usually ineffective. Long-lasting and successful policy is rooted in examination of past practices, data analysis and assessment of pilot programs.

Instead of embracing every “solution” with mass appeal, we must confront the circumstances of schoolhouse shootings in recent years:  few of the changes proposed would have prevented these tragedies.

If we cannot rely on big, simple changes to eradicate all risk of harm, what can we do?

First, our country needs better screening and mental health treatment for those young people in, or at risk of entering, the juvenile justice system. Adequate mental health practices could provide early identification of young people most at risk for committing terrible crimes. Delivering support to them early would make it more likely they will be successful in school and in life and far less likely they will deteriorate into the evil of mass murder.

Second, we must not overlook the largest and most powerful tool of all – the individuals who make up the affected community.
For young people, “community” can be a town or neighborhood, a family, a schoolroom, a pod in a detention center or even a unit in a juvenile prison. Crime does not occur in a vacuum – it causes harm to an individual and, therefore, includes a victim, the offender and the community affected by the event. If the juvenile justice system includes those personally involved in a harmful event, a restorative justice approach requires that the offender be held accountable, the safety of the community be strengthened and that the offender develops the ability to refrain from future criminal conduct. Most importantly, the victim must be heard and the harm suffered must be repaired on the victim’s terms.

These are lofty goals and do not describe the legal system which defines crime as violation of specific laws and an offense against the state which requires specified punishment. Let’s see if the restorative justice approach could affect safety in schools.

The MacArthur Foundation’s juvenile justice reform initiative, Models for Change, supported a restorative justice project in Peoria, Illinois, and the report detailing its path to success is recommended reading for communities considering the addition of restorative justice services. “Partnering with Schools to Reduce Juvenile Justice Referrals” is available on the Models for Change website.

To begin, the Peoria County Juvenile Justice Council conducted an in-depth data review of local juvenile crime and detention patterns. The council noticed a large number of aggravated battery arrests at Manual High School and probed deeper to find the reason behind the higher than expected rate of detained students. Interviews of school personnel revealed the “aggravated” battery charges usually resulted from a teacher trying to break up a fight among students and were “aggravated” because they occurred on school property, not because of physical harm to teachers or students. Students expressed concerns about conflicts in the community spilling over into the school; teachers were concerned about school safety, disruptions to learning and a lack of effective responses to conflict in the school.

Changing the culture at Manual High began with Peacemaking Circles, a restorative justice technique to provide students with a method of airing issues, working out misunderstandings and resolving differences through a structured discussion led by school staff. The Circle process kept disagreements from escalating into physical altercations. The process spread to seven other Peoria county schools. These low-cost interventions resulted in a 35 percent reduction in school-based referrals to detention and a 43 percent reduction for African-American youth following implementation.

Another restorative practice – peer juries – was implemented to hold students accountable in constructive ways for disruptive behavior at school. Peer juries emphasize youth-led, consensus-based conflict resolution in which the youth is held accountable, relationships can be repaired and new social skills can be learned. Kiefer Academy, the Peoria alternative school, embraced both Peacemaking Circles and peer juries. Use of restraints at Kiefer Academy dropped from 212 instances in the 2007-2008 school year to 141 in 2009-2010.  Equally important, the students reported better relationships with teachers and classmates, less disruption in classrooms and better grades and school attendance. The Peoria County Juvenile Justice Council kept accurate data throughout this process, and the numbers support the success of these restorative justice techniques.

We need the “system” to focus on all the research and best practices to improve public safety in a fiscally responsible way that provides and promotes positive outcomes for kids.

But we also need to recognize that we are all in this together – the “system” is not just someone else with a badge, a gun or the keys to a cell. It is each one of us – in our roles in the system and in our roles as community members.