December 1st, 2014

Central Falls to launch restorative justice project

Rhode Island’s Central Falls School District has been awarded a $3.68 million federal grant for a pilot project to steer middle and high school students with budding disciplinary problems back on track before they end up kicked out of school or possibly even arrested.

Studies show kids suspended or expelled from school are more likely to drop out and that dropouts are more likely to end up with criminal records. Students of color are more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, even when the infractions are the same.

“We really want to stop the typical school-to-prison pipeline. That’s exactly where they end up,” Superintendent Frances Gallo says of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) grant announced Oct. 1 by the state’s congressional delegation.

The grant will be used to implement “restorative justice” case conferences where students, teachers and families work together to resolve conflicts and hold kids accountable for any restitution. The three-year project launching Jan. 1, 2015, will expand upon work started last spring to recast behavior specialists and truant officers as trained “restorative specialists” who can get to the root of what’s causing misbehavior.

The goal is to provide an alternative approach to improving school safety without a punitive culture that can negatively affect students, says Julia Steiny, founding director of the Youth Restoration Project and an educational consultant who co-wrote the grant application.

“Restorative practices are a mental-health initiative in themselves,” Steiny says.

The smallest and most densely populated city in the smallest state, Central Falls faces serious economic challenges. The city’s median family income in 2012 was $29,396 compared to $68,326 statewide, according to Rhode Island KIDS COUNT data. Nearly 42 percent of the city’s children live in families below the federal poverty threshold.

Math and reading proficiency levels lag behind the state averages at elementary, middle and high school levels while the city has higher rates of chronic absence and suspensions. The four-year graduation rate for Central Falls High School was 74 percent as of the 2012-2013 academic year, compared to 80 percent statewide.

Teachers and school staff in Central Falls secondary schools reported feeling less safe than teachers statewide in the 2012-2013 annual SurveyWorks survey conducted by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Twenty-three percent of high school personnel and 15.4 percent at the middle school reported being either physically harmed by or threatened with harm by a student compared to 8 percent statewide. To the statement, “I feel safe inside the school,” 30.8 percent of the middle-school teachers and 20.4 percent at the high school disagreed strongly or disagreed, compared with 9.2 percent statewide.

The restorative justice project is being funded as part of the NIJ Comprehensive School Safety Initiative to evaluate the best methods to make schools safe, including security measures, behavioral and mental health services and anti-bullying programs.

Central Falls will work with schools in Westerly, and two charter districts, Blackstone Valley Prep and the Greene School, to launch the program. The Urban Institute will lead the project’s evaluation, in partnership with The Providence Plan.

By Janine Weisman

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