Schools often suspend or expel youth who misbehave, ostensibly to maintain order. Unfortunately, an analysis of 30 years of data on middle school expulsions and suspensions issued last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that the sanctions were unfair and ineffective.
So what can be done? For one thing, schools can partner with juvenile courts toreduce the number of unnecessary referrals to juvenile court (follow the link for a great 2010 presentation for the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance given by Judges Steven Teske and Brian Huff on how they accomplished this in their jurisdictions).
But restorative justice offers another useful solution. Recent research done on a few schools in the U.S., Britain, and Canada suggests that adopting restorative justice techniques in the classroom can reduce suspensions and expulsions significantly.
Restorative justice is an approach that connects the victim of a crime with the person who committed it in a structured meeting with others present. There's various ways of setting this up, but the process has the advantage of being more personal than the formal justice system, and more comprehensible. While it's also effective with adults, it seems tailor-made for juvenile justice settings, because the brains of adolescents are still developing and youth are often highly capable of changing their behavior.
But as you can imagine, it takes skill and dedication to run a successful restorative justice program, so I asked Dr. Gordon Bazemore, who's studied and implemented numerous restorative justice programs, what the hallmarks of a good restorative justice program were. (Bazemore is professor and director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and director of the Community Justice Institute, at Florida Atlantic University.)
Here's his reply:
The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.