After one academic year, eight out of nine campuses that participated in My Brother’s Keeper San Antonio’s pilot restorative justice initiative have shown progress on first-year implementation indicators, according to an evaluation by UTSA. Restorative justice is a whole school approach to building a positive school climate and addressing harm.
“Though the year was cut short due to COVID-19, what we see in this report is promising. The passionate and clearly committed school teams can expect to see continued results if they follow the recommendations we made in the report. Having a clear vision grounded in social justice, using best practices and committing to removing barriers at the individual, school and district levels will be necessary for significant systemic change with long term impact for our community,” said Jelena Todic, principal investigator and assistant professor in UTSA’s College for Health, Community and Policy.
The initiative launched whole school restorative justice models at nine campuses in the San Antonio, Judson and Harlandale school districts during the 2019–2020 academic year with support from UTSA restorative justice researchers and practitioners Robert Rico and Todic. Norma Almazan, a social work graduate research assistant, provided essential research and implementation support throughout the project.
The initiative, a network of community-based organizations, school districts, UTSA, and city and county government, formed the Rethinking Discipline Community of Practice, which met monthly to discuss best practices and implementation strategies. The RDCP is one strategy the initiative uses to tackle inequities in education. Local disaggregated data shows that exclusionary discipline practices disproportionately affect young people of color, especially boys.
“Having a clear vision grounded in social justice, using best practices and committing to removing barriers at the individual, school and district levels will be necessary for significant systemic change with long term impact for our community.”
Despite a disruption in the academic year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of schools that implemented the restorative justice model achieved increased commitment to restorative practices, changing dialogue and increased options for managing behavior. Additionally, all schools provided various elements of the practice such as professional development for staff, peace rooms and ‘circles’ to build community and resolve conflict among staff and students.
“Restorative justice provides opportunities for my son to share his thoughts and feelings in a safe space. Circles also help him learn more about his classmates and their experiences,” said Paula Johnson, a parent and the director of IDRA EAC-South.
Because they prioritize relationships and community, restorative justice practices became critical during the pandemic because social emotional learning became a high priority while working in a virtual environment.
“We know that having an administration that is committed to this process is critical to success for any whole-school restorative justice model. What we saw in this academic year was that these tools we’d established in schools were actually critical during the pandemic,” Todic said.
Because of the initiative’s infancy, especially in light of the COVID-19 interruption, it is promising that four schools decreased suspensions and one maintained low rates throughout the project. Additionally, three out of eight schools showed signs of reducing disproportionate impact of exclusionary discipline on children of color.
“By shifting mindsets and creating a culture of supportive accountability in schools, we set up our boys and young men of color for greater success not only in school, but into adulthood. My Brother’s Keeper San Antonio has been committed to providing pathways for boys and young men of color to college success and I believe this is critical to this work,” said Derek Taylor, My Brother’s Keeper San Antonio Justice-involved Young People chair and senior management coordinator for Stand-Up SA at the City of San Antonio’s Metro Health District.
Read the report: Rethinking Discipline