The paper hanging inside a second-floor classroom at Garfield High School spoke more pointedly than a raft of research articles about student frustration with traditional approaches to school discipline.
Under the question, “Why are you here?” 16 teens willing to devote weeks to getting trained as restorative justice mediators offered their answers:
“Healing harms,” one student said. “Unequal treatment,” added another. “Injustice toward students.”
School discipline in Seattle is so lopsided — with black students suspended at five times the rate of whites — that the federal Office for Civil Rights is investigating. But educators, parents and students, impatient with the slow pace of an inquiry that has been ongoing since 2012, are moving ahead with a solution known as restorative justice, which aims to repair harm, rather than focus solely on punishment.
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“Everybody agrees that the system we have is not working,” said Garfield Principal Ted Howard. “We can’t afford to suspend kids for 10 days — do they ever catch up? I’ll tell you, it was a bitter pill for me, as a black man, to look at the data.”
In the past month, the urgency for a better answer has echoed up to the highest levels of King County government. King County Council member Larry Gossett said: “The jury is still out on how well restorative justice projects will lower suspensions and expulsions in our schools. But this holds some solid promise. And I am going to be one of those pushing for it more.”
Earlier this month, the Seattle teachers union said it would ask district leaders to adopt restorative justice as the go-to model for handling behavior problems; King County Council members asked for an update on the Garfield students’ project; and Susan Craighead, presiding judge of King County Superior Court urged her colleagues to begin addressing racially skewed justice among youth.
“This situation is utterly untenable,” she said. “The number of youth in the juvenile justice system is going down, but the percentage of African-American youth is going up.”
The judge’s comments embody a groundswell of interest in exploring restorative justice as a way to stem the tide. King County Juvenile Court will begin a pilot effort later this month, using the Garfield students to help as mediators between youthful offenders and their victims.
But mediation is not easy, the students have learned. And restorative justice even less so.
“It’s difficult to sit across from the person you’ve had a conflict with and listen, and be accountable, and make an apology and move ahead — that’s hard, really hard. Harder than being out of school for two days,” said Polly Davis, a former parent at Garfield, who organized the Garfield-Juvenile Court training. “Because you have to change your thinking.”
In their training, the Garfield students discovered that bare facts — what happened, when — don’t always get at the full truth of a conflict, such as the story behind an assault, or what a victim may need to move on.
Ryan Thon, a senior at Big Picture High who is joining the Garfield program, spoke to the problem of needing to “be right.”
Four blind men describing an elephant might each note a different aspect of the animal — rough skin, long trunk, huge legs — and none of them would be wrong, he said. But only by listening to all perspectives would anyone come away with an accurate picture.