Goodbye zero tolerance: Program aims to cut 'school-to-prison pipeline'

By Miranda Leitsinger, Staff Writer, NBC News

BOSTON, Mass. – At Charlestown High School, where many students come from high-crime neighborhoods, an innovative program employs a surprising method to help keep teens in school and out of trouble with the law: Encouraging them to talk to each other.  Image courtesy www.diplomaplus.net

On one recent Friday, nine students gathered for a weekly discussion circle aimed at creating a tight-knit community in order to prevent and resolve conflict. One student spoke about feeling angry, while another explained that she was lonely at home because her mom is in the hospital. “You guys are so on it,” said Natasha Srivastasa, a teacher at the program, which is called Diploma Plus.

Diploma Plus uses tenets of “restorative justice,” a practice gaining popularity in classrooms across the country as an alternative to widespread “zero-tolerance policies” that promote suspension or expulsion of misbehaving students. “The idea behind restorative justice is about building relationships, trust and community so people are invested,” said Janet Connors, coordinator of Diploma Plus' Justice League, a student-led group that helps resolve disputes.

Restorative justice programs, which include discussion circles and student-led courts, give troubled students a second chance to succeed at school and aim to disrupt the “school-to-prison pipeline,” in which expelled youth end up in the criminal justice system.

In recent decades, the number of youth suspensions and expulsions has dramatically increased across the nation for a wide range of offenses, including minor incidents such as intentionally bumping into someone in a hallway. But serious consequences have followed, said sociologist David Karp, associate dean at Skidmore College and an expert in restorative justice in educational settings.

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(First published by U.S. News on NBC News)