Restorative Justice and Health in Merced Schools

September 2014

Restorative justice and health in Merced schools; Improving health impacts through school discipline policy in Merced, CA.

Executive Summary

Exclusionary school discipline or “zero tolerance” policies stemmed from a federal mandate to keep guns out of schools. Over the last two decades, school districts across the country expanded the scope of offenses that automatically trigger a student’s suspension, expulsion, or arrest to include use of drugs or alcohol, threats, cursing, and the ill-defined “willful defiance.” But zero tolerance policies don’t work — they make schools no safer, harm students’ health, well-being, and achievement, and disproportionately target non-white students. Today, many schools are rethinking severe disciplinary approaches and embracing restorative justice, which focuses on repairing the harm caused by misbehavior and getting students to take responsibility for their actions.

In Merced County, the shift toward restorative justice is found in a number of high schools among the county’s 20 school districts. This Health Impact Assessment reviews the benefits of restorative justice in schools by examining six Merced-area high schools where restorative justice is in use. The HIA predicts the impacts of restorative justice on educational and fiscal impacts, suspension and school pushout, school climate, and mental health, and makes recommendations for continued and expanded use of restorative justice in these schools and others in the county.

The findings, and their specific implications for Merced County, include the following:

  • Research suggests that if properly implemented and sustained, restorative justice policies can reduce suspensions in the range of 20% to 40%. If suspensions in the six Merced schools – more than 2,100 in 2012-13 – were reduced by 40%, 800 fewer students would be suspended each year. If that happened countywide, 3,400 fewer students would be suspended each year of the total number suspended, which was over 8,500 in 2012-13.
  • Since state school funding is based on the number of students in attendance, a 40% reduction in suspensions in the county would save districts a total of $120,000 per year.
  • Suspended students are more likely to drop out, and each additional suspension increases the chance that they will eventually drop out. According to research predicting dropouts resulting from suspensions, of the more than 4,000 students suspended in Merced County in the 2012-13 school year, an estimated 1,830 will drop out.
  • High school dropouts have a higher rate of unemployment, lower incomes, more poverty, and a higher rate of incarceration. The lifetime cost to society for each dropout is $292,000, while each graduate benefits society roughly as much. If the 1,830 projected countywide dropouts stayed in school and graduated, the total benefit to society would be more than $525 million.

Generally, research indicates that rather than help to promote safe and healthy schools, exclusionary disci- pline actually exacerbates misbehavior at school. Suspension leads to increased rates of misbehavior both at school and away, as students who aren’t in school are more likely to fight, carry weapons, use drugs and alcohol, and have sex. As many as 60% of daytime crimes are committed by truant youths, some of whom were excluded from school and many of whom fall into the “school to prison pipeline.”

Research tells us that this is especially true for African-American and Latino youth, who are the most likely to be suspended and expelled from school, make up the majority of incarcerated juveniles, and are more likely to be sent to prison as adults. Low-income students, students with single parents, and students with disabilities also are more often and more severely punished.

Studies show that restorative justice increases test scores and graduation rates. Restorative justice approaches have been found to reduce bullying, violence, and arrests at school. Students in schools practicing the principles of restorative justice have better relationships with teachers and with each other and develop higher self-esteem. All of those factors are social determinants shown to profoundly improve health and well-being.

Restorative justice offers students, teachers, and administrators an effective way to reach a dignified response to misbehavior, make amends, and repair harm. It typically features a non-adversarial, dialogue-based decision-making process that allows affected parties to discuss the harm done to victims while considering the needs of all participants, and an agreement for going forward, based on the input of all participants about what is necessary to repair the harm. In addition to reacting to conflicts, restorative justice can also include a continuum of proactive, community-building practices to cause reflection and build relationships.

The Merced County schools examined by the Health Impact Assessment are using two different models of a restorative justice disciplinary process. Five schools use a model in which the process starts by students filling out forms that describe and explain the behavior in question, ask what must be done to make things right, and how the student would behave differently in the future. At the sixth, the process begins with individual counseling, then a peer-to-peer conference resulting in agreements to repair harm, and follow-up to make sure the agreement is kept.

The restorative justice model used in five schools is at a different phase of development in each school, and the Health Impact Assessment finds that effective restorative justice programs strategically combine a variety of methods. Research and focus groups with students, teachers, and administrators suggest that the counseling and peer conference approach is favored by participants and has more benefits.

Recommendations of the Health Impact Assessment include:

  • Continue and expand use of restorative justice in the six schools studied and consider expansion to other Merced County schools.
  • Implement restorative justice methods strategically selected from the continuum of methods available, and focus on mediation and communication.
  • Allow three to six years for a restorative justice approach to be fully implemented at each school.
  • Begin restorative justice practices in elementary or middle school. At a minimum, begin educating students and staff in its principles at schools feeding to restorative justice high schools.
  • Educate not only students, teachers, and administrators about restorative justice, but also parents and law enforcement officials.
  • Connect restorative justice programs to other services such as mental health and substance abuse treatment.
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