Restorative Justice offered his daughter salvation from the harsh punishments handed out under the Escambia County School District’s zero tolerance program. John S., who asked to remain anonymous to protect his middle schooler’s identity, believed the short-lived program gave his daughter the second chance she needed.
“My daughter had never been in trouble before. She played sports and was on the A honor roll,” said the father. She got into an altercation at school with another student. The father was worried about his daughter carrying the incident on her transcripts into high school.
“The school told me about this new program. I had a chance to sit in and see what it was about. They were open enough to allow me to ask whatever questions I had. They did an excellent job explaining everything in detail,” John S. told the IN. After he and his daughter met school officials, they were able to work out a plan to restore his daughter’s record and get her back into the classroom.
ALTERNATIVE TO ZERO TOLERANCE
The Restorative Justice program was initiated in the School District with the help of a three-year $945,000 grant from The Florida Bar Foundation. In 2009, the Florida Legislature passed SB 1540 that required children no longer be referred to law enforcement for minor violations such as bringing plastic butter knives to school, drawing pictures of guns or throwing an eraser. The law was intended to reduce the number of school referrals that result in students entering the criminal justice system, feeding what has become known as the “school-to-jail pipeline.” The School District needed an alternative to suspensions and expulsions issued under the old zero tolerance policy for such violations.
The Florida Bar Foundation in conjunction with the Collins Center for Public Policy established a proactive grant program to help implement alternative programs. The Collins Center selected Escambia County as a pilot project for its Restorative Justice initiative.
Warrington Middle, Woodham Middle, Workman Middle, and Bellview Middle schools were selected. The Collins Center’s research had found that roughly a quarter of the 10,500 students in Escambia County middle schools had received out-of-school suspensions in recent years.
After a few months of working out details and coming to an agreement, the Florida Bar Foundation provided a portion of the first year’s funding in April 2010. The school was to given the $945,000 over a course of three years. The program was called “Escambia County Alternatives to Zero-tolerance Program.” It was to give students who break the rules and disrupt the educational process a chance to avoid suspension or expulsion by entering the program.
Escambia County Schools Superintendent Malcolm Thomas said when the grant was announced the he was committed to keeping students in school when they get into trouble, rather than removing them from the academic environment through suspensions or expulsions. He hoped the pilot program would become a model for other districts.
By October 2010, the School District had notified The Florida Bar Foundation that it was dropping the pilot program and wouldn’t accept the remaining two years of the grant.
TOO MANY CONTROLS?
Jane Curran, executive director at the Florida Bar Foundation, states that she was not notified on why the school district chose to cancel. She said, “They just said that they did not want to go forward with it.”
Superintendent Thomas was not available for comment. In a letter addressed to Curran, he said, “We deeply regret that grant activities… will terminate on October 29. While the Escambia County School Board remains committed to the principles of Restorative Justice, programmatic concerns preclude the continuation of the Florida Bar Foundation program.”
Steve Marcanio, Director of Middle Schools for the county, told the IN the School Board canceled the grant because the contingencies and conditions kept changing. “The training we invested in has paid off and my schools have been encouraged to continue to use the process as a strategy when it is appropriate,” said Marcanio, but he wouldn’t identify what contingencies or conditions were changing.
The School Board approved Superintendent Thomas’s recommendation to terminate the The Florida Bat Foundation grant at a special meeting on Sept. 30, 2010. The minutes from the meeting give no specific reasons why. They state: “The Superintendent noted that the School District remained committed to the principles of Restorative Justice; however, programmatic concerns precluded the continuation of the Florida Bar Foundation program.” The School Board did not ask for any information from parents, students or others involved in the program. The vote to terminate was unanimous.
The grant did carry many conditions in which the school district was obliged to follow if it wanted to keep receiving funds. Exact guidelines for the spending of the money were set, and the money, by contract, could not be spent outside of those guidelines without permission from the Florida Bar Foundation. The School District had to provide specific budget projections to the Collins Center, who would oversee the entire program, and issue detailed reports on the progress of the pilot program.
The majority of the grant money was to be used to hire people. Ninety-five percent of the first $300,000 was allocated to the school district for contracts with outside agencies and employees. Twenty University of West Florida social work interns were to be paid $2,000 each for their services in implementing the program in the middle schools.
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church had a contract for $20,000 for “community support for the model, additional capacity building activities and parent support groups.” Village Architects, a Tallahassee-based consulting firm, was paid $10,000 to train program coordinators and faculty members in the ways of Restorative Justice.
All of these groups, including various parents and students from the student government associations at the various schools, would comprise School Accountability Boards, which would individually overlook all appropriate disciplinary actions.
“We were proud of the training. Numerous teachers and folk had a very big interest in trying to set this program up. They were impressed and happy to do it,” said CEO of Village Architects Dale Landry. “I know it works very well. I’ve been working with Restorative Justice in other places since 1998. I’ve seen it work.”
CHANGE IS HARD
Robin Reshard, program director for the non-profit Bethel Youth Development and who served on a School Accountability Board, is disappointed the Superintendent canceled the pilot program. She said that it was impossible to gauge how well the program worked overall because it was still very new and abruptly changed.
“I think change is hard,” said Reshard. “I think the School District pulled out because we are looking at change and when you look at change you are going to go through some very uncomfortable things. We ended up suffocating because we didn’t want to stretch.”
Reshard believes the changes away from zero tolerance were “inconvenient” for the School District. “In my mind it really isn’t about the money. It goes back to the institutional mindset that we need to overcome. You can do that without the money. The money certainly gives you the interest to bring in the resources and new ideas, but changing your mind about how students are educated doesn’t cost a dime.”
Despite cancellation of the Restorative Justice pilot program, parents like John S. remain hopeful in alternative forms of punishment. “Personally, it was something that I was willing to work with because of what I believe it can do for children in Escambia County,” said John S. “The program was set up in general to put parents down with their children. I believe kids should still have a future without a label attached to their name.”