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New Fight for Student Success

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Greg Glasgow

Social work professor's research challenges the school-to-prison pipeline

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Yolanda Anyon

Intentionally or not, public school disciplinary systems tend to unfairly target students of color, says Yolanda Anyon, assistant professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. According to civil rights data, more than half of students involved in school-related arrests are Latino and African-American.

“Once someone is suspended or expelled from school, they are at increased risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system,” Anyon explains. “Black and Latino students are more likely to get suspended from school than white students are, even for the same behavior.”

In an effort to reverse the trend, Anyon partnered with the Denver School-Based Restorative Practices Partnership, a collaborative that works to replace punitive measures with restorative justice in Denver’s public schools. Guided by a 2016 report written by Anyon, the coalition of racial justice, education, labor and community groups has been working toward widespread implementation of restorative practices. The group hopes to lower suspension and expulsion rates that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.

“We think that this report is making a unique contribution as far as a practical set of guidelines of what is needed in order to make the widespread implementation of restorative justice successful,” Anyon says.

There are three levels when it comes to restorative justice practices. The first is dialogue; if a student has acted out, a conversation happens between that student and his or her teacher. The next step is to involve everyone in what is called a peace circle. Students and involved teachers sit in a circle and create a dialogue, allowing everyone to discuss how the behavior of the particular student affected them.

Black and Latino students are more likely to get suspended from school than white students are, even for the same behavior. Yolanda Anyon, assistant professor at the Graduate School of Social Work

If the first two steps fail to resolve the situation, the student meets with the school’s head disciplinarian to discuss the issue and what can be done to repair the harm caused. In most cases, this is as far as restorative practices reach; however, there are some policies that cannot be changed, and a student may still face suspension or expulsion if his offense falls under one of those policies. An example of this is bringing a weapon to school.

The report is being disseminated nationally by the organizations partnering with the Denver School-Based Restorative Justice Partnership. These include Padres y Jovenes Unidos, a national nonprofit that works for educational equity, racial justice, immigrant rights and quality health care; the Denver Classroom Teachers Association; the National Education Association; and the Advancement Project, a national advocacy organization that fights racial injustice. The groups have come together to discover what Denver schools have done to make restorative practices successful in their classrooms — and to try to replicate that success across the country.

“There is a lot of attention around the country to racial discipline gaps and the school-to-prison pipeline,” Anyon says. “Denver Public Schools is truly a leader in creating alternatives to suspension through restorative practices, which show great promise for promoting equity and fairness in the discipline process.”