Restorative justice practitioners had a clear message for the Madison School Board's committee on police in schools: It is time for the police to go.
The Madison School Board's ad-hoc committee on educational resource officers is three-quarters of the way through its 15-month process to review, evaluate and make recommendations about the use of police in schools.
At Wednesday’s meeting, its eleventh, committee members heard about restorative justice in the district’s middle and high schools from Bill Baldon, restorative justice manager at the YWCA; Lorrie Hurckes, director of the Dane County Time Bank, which facilitates the youth courts; and Lonna Stoltzfus, a social worker who is on the Madison Metropolitan School District’s restorative practices team.
Restorative justice is an alternative approach to school discipline. The approach seeks to move away from punitive, reactionary responses to student misconduct to positive responses that examine root causes of misbehavior and repairs harm done to the school community.
The restorative justice workers believe the district should remove EROs from schools, but acknowledged that structures need to be in place to make the transition successful.
“There is groundwork that needs to be done to make that feasible,” Stoltzfus said.
The team suggested working to shift mindsets of school staff around restorative justice by allowing people to take ownership over the process and implementing practices consistently across the district.
“We need to be consistent,” Baldon said. “If we want to leverage the investment, we need to go all in.”
The advocates shared examples of restorative justice across the district. Stoltzfus said Madison Memorial High School’s approach and mindset shift among the faculty is “moving the needle” on academic and behavioral outcomes.
Hurckes and Baldon said peer-to-peer restorative justice circles at La Follette High School and Cherokee Middle School allow students to work through their differences and get to the root of their conflicts.
Advocates also discussed the tension between their work and the punitive models of school discipline that exist in schools. Hurckes said community partners don’t receive data about student arrests, suspensions and citations until it is shared with the public the following school year, which makes it difficult to track results in real time.
Hurckes also pointed out that when young people commit an offense in the community that warrants a citation, they can opt-in to the youth court process. But that practice is inconsistent in the high schools, she said, with EROs deciding when kids can participate.
“It seems like the default is punitive, not restorative,” Hurckes said. “We are always talking about youth accountability, but we need to talk about adult accountability as well.”
During the question and answer portion of the presentation, Madison School Board vice president Anna Moffitt asked how restorative justice practices work for students with disabilities. While advocates were able to point to anecdotal examples, Hurckes acknowledged that they “haven’t gotten there yet,” with the process.
Madison School Board member TJ Mertz asked the team how restorative practices can work in a system where people inherently have more power than others.
“In a philosophical way, I agree with the insight (around restorative justice), but you can’t do these practices within hierarchical organizations,” Mertz said. “Our district is inherently hierarchical with imbalances of power. You can shift that, to some degree... but imbalances will exist.”
“It’s about having power over people versus having power with people,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we eliminate structures, but we can have it feel differently.”
Next month, committee members will begin sharing their recommendations on whether or not EROs should remain in schools and, if they do, how the current model should change. A second meeting will focus on the same topic in March.