Collaborative Justice Practices: A Responsible Approach To Bad Behavior In Tennessee Schools

Friday, April 5, 2013

School violence has taken center stage in the national media these past few months.  As a result, the debate has ranged in solutions from having armed officers in schools to community forgiveness.  The problem is that few proposals have existed in the “middle ground” where rational solutions oft lie. 

The problem with the armed guards, or school resource officers, solution at each school is that it is not only cost prohibitive but also it is a repeat of the 1990's and the problems that followed.  According to Vincent Schiraldi, of the Justice Policy Institute, the 1990's had more juvenile arrests than America's entire history before 1990.  As a result, states, like Tennessee, shifted funds from higher education to prisons based on the “Superpredator” myth of the 1990's.

As a result, in what Florida academics have termed the “Test-to-Prison Pipeline” theory, some schools, over time, have adapted to bolster performance-based funding to retain those valuable depleting funds.  The theory suggests that suspended, expelled, imprisoned and drop-out students cannot take standardized tests and therefore the overall scores of the schools improve with more funding being released as a direct result of this practice.  

Nationally, everyone has seen on the news where young children have been arrested on felony and misdemeanor firearms charges for using tater tots, chicken nuggets, etc. as toy weapons and saying “bang!”  In December of 2012, the New York Times even did an article on Tennessee’s problems and mis-steps in dealing with juvenile-based offenses when the federal government had to investigate disproportionate juvenile maltreatment and improper processing.   In Shelby County alone, some 4,000 juvenile offenders are charged each year with 150 to 200 sent to adult criminal court.

Some are calling for the use of “peace studies” practices as an answer. The problem is that they rarely, if ever, talk of holding offenders accountable.  In the 1960's, this movement supported rehabilitation for offenders – a characteristic that many contemporary manifestations are noticeably lacking.  Instead, they contend the path to peace is embracing one’s victimization and forgiving both themselves and their offenders.   They usually support psychological evaluations for students and the liberal prescribing of Ritalin and mood altering drugs as an answer to potential future violence.  Many support the “Three Strikes” policy – the very same policy that evolved into the “Test-to-Prison Pipeline.”

Obviously, there needs to be a middle ground.  The solution to these divergences in thought may just be Collaborative Justice – the merging of Conflict Resolution and Restorative Justice practices into one unified practice.  

Conflict Resolution is already used in courts for civil, divorce and juvenile cases.  In the school system, a prime example of Conflict Resolution practices at work is the peer mediation program which has been used with great success for over 30 years in various American school systems. 

Restorative Justice is in use not only in the courts but also in schools and detention facilities.  Daily classroom circle sessions, panels, conferences and Circle Justice are all complex practices aimed at building communities, opening dialogue and holding individuals accountable for their actions.  

There is also an economic side to this issue.  For instance, with a national rate of over 857 students dropping out of school each hour, our economy is taking a massive hit.  Ultimately, high school drop-outs make 40 percent less income, have worse health, are disproportionately incarcerated and ultimately use up more social services and welfare funding than high school graduates.  

Collaborative Justice-based programs tackle these issues head on by improving attendance, improving test scores, lowering disciplinary recidivism, lowering bullying, and more.  With billions being lost in tax revenue from low-income earning dropouts,  more money being spent on failed punitive systems, and even more money being spent to house dropouts that have found their way to prisons – it should be a “no-brainer” that school-based Collaborative Justice programs are indeed a socially and economically proper response to school-based violence in Tennessee. 

Ken Johnson



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