For several years, local activists feared Black students in Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) faced suspensions, expulsions, and harsh discipline over minor infractions in an effort to push them out of the system. This scenario, commonly referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline, is where punitive discipline policies link students to law enforcement for punishment. The school system recently released a study, Restorative Justice Now: A Community Review of Alexandria City Public Schools’ Implementation of Restorative Justice, in an effort to substantiate and address the consequences of such practices.
Discipline data uncovered during the study reveals that Black students were nine times more likely to receive a short-term, out-of-school suspension than White students. In the 2014-2015 school year, Black students composed 93 percent of those suspended for subjective behavior offenses and 85 percent of discretionary referrals, or referrals not required by state law, to law enforcement.
“The report provides undeniable evidence that subjectivity and bias drive the disproportionate suspensions and law enforcement referrals of Black students,” said Ingris Moran, lead organizer with Tenants and Workers United.“Racism and bias are pushing students out of school and into the juvenile justice system unnecessarily. This is why we want to work with ACPS to implement restorative practices.”
According to the International Institute for Restorative Practices, restorative justice are formal or informal responses to crime and other wrongdoing after it occurs.
During the community forum, students were presented with report cards to grade the school district on its implementation of restorative justice practices. The district received an ‘F’ for failing to hire a restorative justice coordinator, provide data on out-of-school suspensions, and train all teachers and administrators on restorative practices.
“We are understandably frustrated at the lack of progress in implementing restorative justice in ACPS,” said Salem Mesfin, a senior at T.C. Williams High School and member of Alexandria United Teens. “For more than three years, the district has promised to implement a set of restorative practices, and to date and they have only marginally begun the work needed to make real change.”
As early as 2006, students with Tenants and Workers United began identifying the school-to-prison pipeline as a serious concern in the school system. The youth chapter of the organization, Alexandria United Teens, surveyed fellow students and asked them to identify obstacles to their success. One of the most common obstacles was the overuse of harsh school discipline practices.
For instance, Black students make up 31 percent of student enrollment in the public schools, but 55 percent are suspended and 52 percent are referred to law enforcement. In comparison, White students are 27 percent of student enrollment, but only 5 percent are suspended and 11 percent are referred to law enforcement.
“Alexandria’s discipline policy unfortunately mirrors policies nationally that disproportionately push students of color out of school and into prison,” said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of Advancement Project, a multi-racial civil rights organization. “Proper implementation of restorative justice will take training, funding, and a real commitment from the school district.”
In response to the report, the public school system released a statement, saying, in part, that numerous efforts were made to replace harsh discipline with more fair and equitable restorative justice. Superintendent Alvin Crawley committed to eight of the 10 youth-developed recommendations on the full implementation of restorative justice.