New school year and new efforts to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline

The New York City Council has responded to years of work by student, parent, and teacher activists by allocating $2.4 million for a set of exploratory restorative justice projects to make New York schools safer and more equitable starting this fall.

North Star Fund grantees Teachers Unite (a Grassroots Action grantee) and Urban Youth Collaborative (a Grassroots Action and Education Justice Fund grantee) have been mobilizing students, teachers, and parents who have sought this change for years. Teachers Unite leader Tyler Brewster explained restorative justice on the "Melissa Harris-Perry" show in August.


Restorative justice approaches can create a safer environment for students, parents, and workers in the system. These approaches offer specific steps to resolve conflicts that disrupt the school environment, including face-to-face dialogues led by teachers or by other students, or listening circles that can de-escalate volatile situations. For example, students who have been fighting can meet together with a facilitator who focuses on ending the conflict, rather than just removing one of the children (who is likely to eventually return to the school).

The effectiveness of harsh disciplinary tactics and the increased policing of schools have not held up to scrutiny (as Linda Ellerbee and many students explain in this "Nick News" video). In an age where fear and harsh discipline rule the day in communities and in U.S. foreign policy, this same paradigm is being applied to schools because it seems simpler and easier.

But statistics increasingly show it doesn’t work. Disciplinary issues are worse, not better, and young people are not being mentored to deal with conflict in healthy ways. “Tough love” can be fine. Tough discipline makes matters worse. 

Even worse, students are being fed into the school-to-prison pipeline, systems of school discipline that seemingly do a better job of preparing young people for prison rather than preparing them for college.

At the root of the school-to-prison pipeline is acknowledging that harsh disciplinary measures are consistently redirecting certain young people out of school, especially when it comes to race. There are multiple bodies of research that show that harsh discipline is disproportionately used against students of color, making harsh punishment a racialized policy.

Restorative justice programs, or restorative practices, enable a school community to focus on repairing the harm created by an individual’s actions. Rather than expelling a student for the short term (which often just leads to multiple, not fewer, expulsions), restorative practices focus on repairing harm, building stronger relationships, and setting up concrete ways of holding people accountable for their actions.

The national Dignity in Schools campaign is moving the dial on this issue across the country. In New York, the local organizations that are part of the coalition such as Teachers Unite, the Urban Youth Collaborative, and Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) have received support from North Star Fund’s community for many years.

Thanks to years of organizers' dogged persistence, New York City public schools may become leaders in breaking the school-to-prison pipeline over the next few years.

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