So will these tools alone transform my school?
We sincerely hope that the restorative practices implemented and described in this Toolkit—peer mediation, circles, conflict resolution, parental and community involvement and control, teacher training and support—are part of a broader project of transformative justice, which seeks to challenge and alter the very way that justice operates both in our schools and in our society as a whole.
We approach the idea of changing our schools with a vision of racially just, desegregated and democratic schooling where children have access to well-funded and equitable public education. We believe that in order to sculpt our schools in the service of this vision, we must understand and be able to articulate the problems facing public schools today, as well as the historical processes that have shaped the current state of public schools.
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Does this work have anything to do with a bigger picture of public education?
In order to implement practices that work against racism and towards Restorative and Transformative Justice in our public schools, it is useful to have an understanding of how people have fought for economically and racially equitable public schools throughout US History. All of these struggles are responses, in ways that are different and important, to US Settler Colonialism. Each of these traditions acknowledge that the United States is a settler state that was founded land theft, genocide and forced migration of peoples for slave labor and the subsequent enslavement of their children. (Smith, 2006)
There is a deep tension between the United States’ ideals around public education—which are about democracy, equity and freedom—and the reality of public educational practices, which have often been racist and otherwise discriminatory. Although this history is painful, we find it inspiring because it illustrates that progress has always been the result of struggle against racism; it has never been handed to us, but always fought for and often won through the work of people in social movements. While this introduction is no place for a detailed history, here are a few examples of important anti-racist moments of struggle in US History:
Thanks to the political organizing of formerly enslaved people, particularly parents, every former Confederate State has a state fund for public education for all students by the year 1870, just five years after the end of slavery. In 1868, North Carolina implements fully desegregated public schooling for all children.
In 1967-1968, African American and Puerto Rican parents and community activists in NYC were struggling for community control of the city’s public schools. With seed money from the Ford Foundation, three ‘experimental districts’ were set up – two in Manhattan (Central Harlem and the Lower East Side) and one in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Ocean Hill – Brownsville. When the Community School Board of Ocean Hill attempted to transfer a number of teachers from JHS 271 on the grounds that they were racist toward the very students they were teaching. The city’s teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers/UFT, fought back. They staged a 2 1/2 month long strike at all of NYC’s public schools which polarized the city along racial lines. The clash ultimately led to the state legislature decentralizing the NYC school system into 32 community school districts, each having a Community School Board. (For more information, see Podair, 2002)
In the Spring of 1968, over 12,000 public school students in East Los Angeles walked out of their schools and won a Chicano oversight board and the implementation of bilingual-bicultural educational programs in LA schools, galvanizing a movement of Chicano educational demands throughout the Southwest United States.
After a series of unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with the City of Chicago, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike in the fall of 2012, hoping to call attention to a number of issues, particularly the broad attack on public schooling by corporate privatizers in a school system in which 86% of the students are Black or Latin@. They demanded smaller class sizes and paid preparation time, a decrease in high-stakes testing for students, and more music, art, and gym programs in Chicago Public Schools. (For more information, see Labor Notes, 2014)
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What do you think is important for everyone to know about restorative and transformative justice?
Both Restorative and Transformative Justice are as concerned with the process of finding justice as the result of the process. This process looks different in different contexts; many different practices have arisen to meet the needs of different communities. Many contemporary practices come from—either in whole or in part—old traditions from around the globe. Some practices are directly derived from contemporary and specific First Nations and indigenous practices, such as Navajo/Diné peacemaking, First Nation sentencing in Canada and elements of various tribal courts in the United States and Aboriginal Courts in Australia. Other practices are indirectly derived from both contemporary and historical indigenous practices, such as Restorative Circles and Truth and Reconciliation Committees, which give a general nod to indigenous tradition without providing an explicit link to a specific cultural context. Other practices are rooted in the traditions of Black Liberation, anti-colonial struggle and women-of-color feminism.
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What motivated Teachers Unite to create this toolkit?
To look with honesty at the current state of schooling in New York City means to reckon with racism, policing and criminal justice. First, there are the statistics: the number of police officers in NYC schools is larger than the entire police force of cities Washington, DC, San Francisco, Detroit or Las Vegas. While black students make up only 17% of the US school population, they make up 34% of the students suspended from school. The life chances and opportunities of all students—but particularly and disproportionately Black and Latino students—are impacted by the fact that they are treated as potential and/or actual criminals while they are in school.
Increasingly, schools rely on suspension, expulsion, citations, summonses, and arrests to handle small infractions and these students end up in jail cells or with criminal records. The increased contact students have with the criminal justice system in schools leads to increased likelihood in incarceration outside of school. This phenomenon is called the School to Prison Pipeline. The School to Prison Pipeline also disproportionately impacts students with disabilities, students who speak primarily languages besides or in addition to English and LGBTQ youth—groups that include, of course, students of color. According to the NYCLU, “the best demographic indicators of children who will be suspended are not the type or severity of the crime, but the color of their skin, their special education status, the school they go to, and whether they have been suspended before.”
These policies and practices are neither necessary nor permanent. They have been, and are currently being resisted in many important ways. The Growing Fairness Toolkit is a testament to our belief that one important way to resist the School to Prison Pipeline is to work to implement alternative justice processes within schools. We work to transform the way justice works in our schools because we want to keep students out of the criminal justice system, and to enhance schools’ abilities to function as self-determining communities. We believe that students, parents, teachers, administrators and community members must come together to make justice help, not harm, our students.
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Why restorative and transformative justice?
According to Australian scholar John Braithwaite, “Restorative justice means restoring victims, a more victim-centred criminal justice system, as well as restoring offenders and restoring community. Restorative Justice aims to restore harmony based on a feeling that justice has been done.”
Partnership for Safety and Justice argues for widening our framing of restorative justice:
“Transformative justice resists co-optation in that it begins with the assumption that we must move forward rather than attempt to restore what was there before. For the victim, it means embracing the possibility of transforming the world positively from their pain, and incorporating that experience in their healing process. Perpetrators are similarly challenged to transform themselves and engage the world—the belief is that most perpetrators commit crimes because they have been marginalized and disempowered, and often suffer from rage and alienation. Rather than attempt to restore this state, transformative justice looks to the future, and acknowledges and incorporates an understanding of the social problems that lead to crime, avoiding simple solutions that neglect the needs of the community. Transformative justice also puts an understanding of the structural racism and classism of our existing criminal justice system at the center of the theory.“
The act of growing Restorative Justice/Transformative Justice in schools is the act of building power at the school site. Teachers Unite members are supporting schools to embody transformative justice through its practice (circles, alternatives to suspensions, etc.) and its principles:
We seek to build school-wide communities in which teachers and other staff work in concert with students and their families. We work in service of a vision in which all teachers and students have democratic political representation, either through a community school board, or a democratic teachers’ union that works for social justice.
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Why isn’t the toolkit free?
Your member dues and generous donations go a long way toward sustaining our ability to provide these types of resources and support. Because our members are leading this work in their schools, the toolkit is a collaborative project.
Is it ok if I give the toolkit password to someone else and save them the money?
Please consider the value of the toolkit to your work and help us strengthen it as well as all the work that we do—even a modest donation helps our small organization carry on! Learn more about what dues and donations support here.
Contact info [at] teachersunite [dot] net if a donation poses a financial burden to someone who is ready to grow fairness in their school. Thank you!
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Where can I send my own reflections and the tools I developed to help schools grow fairness?
Let’s work together! Contact info [at] teachersunite [dot] net.
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