Restorative-justice message unites students

Student activists from the group ReThink linked arms in the sunny Langston Hughes Academy cafeteria Thursday morning as “rethinker” Kylar Hughes recited her tribute poem to Trayvon Martin.

Hughes’ message about the late Florida teen was, “If you see my brother in a hoodie, don’t shoot him. Give him a book and say, ‘Stay in school.’ ”

But Hughes’ poem also had a message directed at school principals and city leaders when she spoke “of institutions that criminalize young people with suspensions called SCHOOL.”

That message resonated through a day of workshops as group members of the citywide, schools-based Restorative Justice Club gathered to push for an expansion of disciplinary practices in use at the Gentilly charter school and in a scattering of schools throughout the city.

Those measures give principals alternatives to suspensions and expulsions that students argue have backfired, resulting not in chastened students but lower test scores, higher dropout rates and more crime.

“Most of the time, kids who get expelled or suspended, they take a bad route,” said Suhayla Chidron, a student at Audubon Charter School.

Chidron said the biggest hurdle that faced the group was that it was “hard to get that message to the principals. They should just start letting us make some decisions. We should have a voice.”

The restorative-justice approach is designed to foster communication and conflict-resolution skills among students, aiming to defang feuds and beefs before they escalate. Students gather in a circle to air grievances with an eye toward resolving them.

“Outside of school — there’s violence, there’s jail,” said Chidron. “That’s why we want to do this inside the school. It gives everyone a chance to say what they need to say.”

Troi Bechet, executive director of the Center for Restorative Practices, said the program’s impact at Langston Hughes had been extraordinary.

Her organization accepted referrals from 15 schools around the city in 2012-13 where restorative-justice methods were used to mediate student conflicts.

In a city school system that Bechet said suffered with “alarming rates of suspension and expulsions,” she cited a 74 percent reduction in suspensions at Langston Hughes the past two years. Violence at the school has gone down by about the same amount the past year.

“Make no mistake, y’all,” Bechet said, “progress is happening.”

Langston Hughes school director Mark Martin welcomed ReThink’s restorative-justice push at the charter, run by FirstLine Schools.

“ReThink has intimidated adults in education for awhile,” Martin said appreciatively.

“They should get used to us, because we aren’t going anywhere” Kennadi Robinson said. “We are just youth who are all business. We don’t play games.”

New Orleans Health Commissioner Karen DeSalvo offered the city’s thumbs-up.

As the students broke out into workshops, DeSalvo talked about Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s anti-murder initiatives under the NOLA For Life umbrella — and ReThink’s expanding role and influence in civic matters.

“The message from ReThink is that the school system hasn’t been structured to be supportive and provide the justice that they’d like to see,” DeSalvo said.

The restorative-justice model is folded in to the NOLA For Life initiatives, but it forces perpetrators to deal face-on with the consequences of their actions, often by meeting with victims’ families.

DeSalvo had earlier told the crowded cafeteria to expect a “youth violence plan coming out in a few weeks” from Landrieu, and told the group that the city would do “everything we can do to make sure that your recommendations are implemented.”

That plan, she said, is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. DeSalvo was impressed with ReThink’s gravitas.

“They understand policy,” she said, and had emerged as “very serious partners” as the city grapples with the oft-cited “school-to-prison pipeline.”