Group seeks to change suspension culture in RI schools


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s new education commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green, has been speaking openly about changing the culture of local schools.

And one Providence group, Youth Restoration Project, is trying to help do just that in Rhode Island, using the concept of restorative justice.

“I like to think of restorative practices as an ancient idea, whose time has come, in the very beginning if someone did something that hurt the community or in school, we talked about it,” said Trinice Holden, Youth Restoration Project trainer.

But for most outside of education, the term may be unfamiliar. So what exactly is it?

The Urban Institute defines it as an alternative method to misbehavior, particularly with suspensions, with the Ocean State being one of the states to lead the way.

“Restorative justice provides a possible alternative to exclusionary responses (e.g., suspension) to student misbehavior. A set of schools in Rhode Island is testing one restorative justice approach, family group conferencing with misbehaving students…Successful family group conferencing addresses deeper causes of misbehavior, helps students understand their actions, repairs harm, and develops supportive relationships.”

The Urban Institute

Julia Steiny, managing director of the project, developed partnerships with Rhode Island schools and social-service agencies to teach and implement restorative practices. She has also been the project director for a National Institute of Justice grant given to the district of Central Falls.

“A kid gets hit, first thing to do is un-peel the onion. You have to find out what’s going on first and we don’t generally do that. We see the crime, we punish the crime without finding out whats going on,” Steiny said. “You take a kid, really rotten circumstances that are behaving in a way that’s really ‘help me’ and you see the punch go down and that’s it we are going to punish that kid. You didn’t do anything positive besides teaching that kid that you’re bad.”

In 2016, the Rhode Island legislature passed a law that restricts the use of out-of-school suspensions to behavior that poses a threat. At the time, more than half of out-of-school suspensions in the state were for nonviolent behavior such as not following orders or rules, or insubordination.

Courtesy: Youth Restoration Project

A few years before that, the Rhode Island General Assembly stopped schools from suspending students for chronic absenteeism.

“If a kid doesn’t know how to swim, we teach, doesn’t know how to read we teach,” Steiny said. “If a kid doesn’t know how to behave we punish, and whats the message? Where’s the teaching in there?”

Eyewitness reached out to the Rhode Island Department of Education and they said in a statement they are moving toward a changing climate.

“Nationally, and in Rhode Island, there has been a shift towards alternative discipline strategies, and it’s something we’re supportive of at the state level. Suspensions should absolutely be on the table for the most serious of offenses, but we should try to avoid excluding students from the school community whenever possible. That’s why we made the decision to include suspension rate in our system of accountability, because high rates of suspension are a proxy measure for school climate and culture.”

Rhode Island Department of Education
Courtesy: Youth Restoration Project

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