Students at Rachel Carson High School Talk it Out to Avoid Suspension

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By Nicole Lewis

552 words

CONEY ISLAND, BROOKLYN  – At Rachel Carson High School in Coney Island, a newly implemented restorative justice program gives students who break the rules the opportunity to weigh in on their own punishment instead of immediately being referred for suspension or other disciplinary action.

The high school is one of just four New York City schools piloting an experimental program that is the  result of a joint-partnership between the Department of Education and Brooklyn Community Foundation. Launched in November 2015, the program aims to improve school climate and safety while reducing soaring suspension rates. If successful during the four-year pilot, advocates say the model can be scaled to reach all public schools in the city.

“We’ve been looking at restorative practices for all of our students,” said Lois Herrera who works on the Mayor’s Task Force on School Safety and Climate. “They’ve gained more momentum, when we look at all the programs. We say that [restorative justice approaches] were very effective in reducing suspensions. We feel we are on the right path.”

Over the past several years, new data has brought to light the overuse of punitive discipline in public schools, leading to what many call the school-to-prison pipeline.

“The biggest feeder into the criminal justice system is schools,” said executive director of Brooklyn Community Foundation Cecilia Clarke. “Children of color and special ed children, in particular. School should be a place where children can be safe instead of feeding into an unsafe system.”

At Rachel Carson High School, principal Ed Wilensky aims to create a familial atmosphere. He sees the restorative justice approach, in which students who violate the school disciplinary code have the opportunity to discuss their behavior, as a way to keep students’ behavior from escalating.

“If [students] start with a level one suspension and don’t have any advising they just keep going,” said Wilensky. “When they are 16-years-of-age they may possibly be in trouble with the law.”

NYC public school’s discipline code refers to a level one suspension as “uncooperative or noncompliant behavior.” The majority of suspensions at Rachel Carson in the last two years were level one and not level four, said principal Wilensky.

When students do break the rules, they are led by a trainer from the New York Institute for Peace in a discussion about the effects and consequence of their behavior. New York Institute for Peace is the largest community mediation center in the country.

Under the guidance of Deputy Police Commissioner Susan Herman, New York Institute for Peace was also tapped to train NYPD officers as mediators.  

“There are police officers that instead of making arrests, they are sitting down and having conversations, referring cases to mediation to our center and others, said Heckman. “They are learning a whole new set of tools to communicate in a way that’s more productive.”

Heckman sees his work inside of schools and with the NYPD as part of a larger mosaic of people and institutions working to make New York City more peaceful. Though he is optimistic that restorative justice work in schools like Rachel Carson will help to keep students out of trouble and out of prison, he knows it is not enough.

“We have to look at every inch of the school-to prison-pipeline, said Heckman. “One end is working with kids and the other end is cops and courts.”

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