116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Iowa City schools are piloting a restorative justice program officials hope will address racial disparities in how discipline is handled in schools.
The announcement of the pilot program coincides student protests this week at Iowa City West High and Northwest Junior High in response to a social media post over the weekend involving students using blackface and racial slurs.
Iowa City schools Superintendent Matt Degner said the incidents would be “addressed through disciplinary policies.”
The restorative justice program aims, over the next five years, to end disproportional student discipline and create schools where all students will feel welcome, safe and included.
The program can be a tool to build stronger relationships between teachers and students and students with other students to get them in a place where they can focus on learning.
Leading the work will be Brad Kelly, the district’s new restorative justice coordinator, who presented a virtual program Wednesday hosted by the League of Women Voters of Johnson County.
Kelly has worked for the district for six years as a student advisory coordinator at South East Junior High and has experience working in social services.
During the 2019-20 school year, Black students made up 60 percent of school suspensions and 52 percent of office referrals, while making up 20.5 percent of the student body, according to the district’s annual progress report.
About 12 percent of the suspensions fell under the categories of defiance, non-compliance, insubordination, disrespect and disruption.
Of those suspensions, 82 percent were students who qualified for free and reduced school lunches, 57 percent were Black, and 31 percent were in a special education program.
Restorative justice is not a new concept, Kelly said, noting American Indigenous people used it to build inclusive communities. It is used to create equitable environments, inclusion, respect and strategies for a safe, strong community.
“What I like the most about restorative practices is it allows people to see beyond behavior,” Kelly said. “It builds empathy.”
One restorative justice practice might be a circle where students speak about their experiences, work to repair harm caused and provide accountability.
In a circle aimed at conflict resolution, Kelly said, questions can be asked without judgment, such as: What happened? What were you thinking? How have your actions affected others? How can you repair the harm you may have caused?
Kelly is clear that restorative justice is not another form of discipline. In school, restorative practices looks like positive interaction, communication and affirmation with students. It will “lift voices” of historically marginalized students, staff and parents, Kelly said.
Circles also can be use for checking in with each other, celebration, learning and building relationships.
Social media posts
At a school board meeting Tuesday, Superintendent Degner said protesting students “are releasing their frustration on a system that has been stacked against them for far too long."
"Our students are telling us that we are tolerating discrimination and harassment,“ he said. ”Our students are telling us that we're creating an environment where hatred and bigotry can grow. Our students are telling us that they do not feel safe. We must listen to them."
At West High, a group of students met to process their thoughts and feelings, and more support is available for students throughout the week, Principal Mitch Gross said in an email to families Monday.
Students have a “right to protest, and the district honors their right to free speech,” Northwest Junior High Principal Elizabeth Bruening said in an email to families Tuesday.
“We empathize with our students’ frustration, fear and anger,” Bruening wrote. “We also appreciate their willingness to engage in further dialogue as we work through this situation.”
After hours of public comment Tuesday — during which Iowa City school board members cannot, by policy, respond — board members promised to address students concerns at the next school board meeting Nov. 23.
The restorative justice program is the newest effort in the Iowa City district’s diversity, equity and inclusion plan, adopted by the school board in December 2019. The plan has six goals:
- Reduce the opportunity gap for structurally disadvantaged students.
- Reduce disproportional discipline.
- Create equitable, inclusive and supportive school environments.
- Attain diverse and culturally proficient teachers, administrators and staff.
- Increase engagement of parents, students and community members.
- Create culturally responsive and equity-informed district policies and practices.
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