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Opinion

Time for Restorative Justice in Our Schools


Zaire Kiran Agostini

Zaire Kiran Agostini, the author


Being a black girl in New York schools is hard—the stereotypes and biases we face are painful, and often overlooked. Too often, they lead to suspensions and arrests of young people like me that take us out of school and push us toward the streets, prison, or worse. Now is the time for New York State to take action to address the damage being done by out-of-touch school discipline policies.

When teachers or administrators look at girls like me talking with my friends, they look at us like we are always about to cause trouble. If we speak up for ourselves, they say we’re being defiant. Even when we are having fun together, like joking around and dancing, they view our behavior as inappropriate. And then, too often, they discipline us.

Youth of color are treated differently than white youth across our state, and data proves that is a reality. Black girls in sixth to eighth grade in New York City, for instance, are eight times more likely than white girls to be suspended two or more times. Being black is the biggest indicator that you will be suspended or arrested in school. Latino students are also more likely to face harsh discipline.

The majority of suspensions and criminal summonses are not for violent and dangerous reasons. They are for minor infractions like “defying authority” or “disorderly conduct”—infractions that the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights acknowledged can be biased and unfairly impact students of color.

In school every day, the first thing that greets us is police officers and a metal detector. It’s demoralizing and, for many of us, can be traumatizing. Once inside the building, students like me face stereotypes that we will never graduate, that we will drop out and have a child, that we are trouble waiting to happen. It feels like the system isn’t built to build us up and support us, but to break us down mentally and emotionally. Research shows the presence of police leads only to an increase in students being arrested for minor incidents. Instead of investing in students, our state is investing in the school-to-prison pipeline. And it’s time for that to change.

Assemblymember Catherine Nolan has introduced a school discipline bill that would make a real difference for students like me. Her proposal, which just passed the State Assembly’s Education Committee, will help to sustain healthy and inclusive learning environments by encouraging schools to approach discipline using restorative practices and ensure fair and equitable discipline for all students, especially students of color and students with disabilities. This restorative justice approach—which engages constructively with young people and limits ineffective measures like suspensions and expulsions—has been tried successfully in schools across New York City and is now being expanded with support from the City Council.

The State must embrace restorative justice and positive discipline strategies, too. The first step: with momentum coming out of the Education Committee, the New York State Assembly should pass the Nolan bill, and send a strong message to the state Senate and Governor Cuomo that we must embrace a bright future for young people like me.

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Zaire Kiran Agostini is a youth leader with Make The Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative. Follow their work on Twitter: @MaketheRoadNY @UYC_YouthPower.

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