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MacIntyre: The failed prison policy that is destroying American schools
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MacIntyre: The failed prison policy that is destroying American schools

The collapse of quality in American public education is no secret, and the causes are legion. Every year our public schools graduate students who can barely read or write and have no hope of finding any nation other than the United States on a map. Some of the factors involved in this degradation are beyond the control of the school system, but many are the result of deliberate policy choices implemented by administrators.

Due to a flurry of reporting and an overwhelming volume of video evidence, parents are increasingly aware of the nefarious racial and gender ideology now being taught in classrooms. But most parents are not aware that woke ideology has deeply impacted the discipline structure in public schools as well. A failed prison policy known as Restorative Justice has now become the standard discipline model in many American schools, even in deeply conservative states, and students are paying the price.

Restorative Justice began as a movement in the 1970s to offer a therapeutic alternative to incarceration. There is plenty of academic jargon layered on top of the process, but the theory was that by making criminals face their victims and talk through the impact of their actions, rehabilitation could be achieved with a reduction in, or complete abolition of, jail time. It does not take a rocket scientist to see the problem here: This means placing victims in contact with their abusers and subjecting them to additional trauma for the benefit of the criminal. The motivation for bureaucrats was never really reconciliation for the victims, but instead an overall reduction in incarceration.

The left was just as interested in releasing unrepentant criminals onto the streets in the 1970s as it is today, and Restorative Justice provided the opportunity for bureaucrats to reduce metrics like incarceration time and duration of prison sentences. The literature in favor of Restorative Justice also advertises its “human rights analysis that emphasizes the factors of race and class in the over-incarceration of people.” The approach is regularly presented as a way to reduce the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans. Restorative Justice was designed from the ground up to create a woke criminal justice system by actively reducing the punishment of criminals in the hopes of driving down incarceration metrics for favored minorities.

This system was unpopular with both victims and the wider public, but the movement was not defeated. Restorative Justice is still practiced in several states today with varying levels of victim participation. The process has also been translated into a system used primarily for conflict resolution inside the prison system itself. Inmates who have wronged each other talk through their disagreements, confronting one another in a therapeutic environment in lieu of traditional corrective punishment. It is this incarnation of Restorative Justice that has been brought into the public education system. As insane as it might seem, the government treats schools as prisons for children and applies the same model of conflict resolution in both institutions.

School administrators, like almost every bureaucratic manager in the modern world, are driven by metrics. The funding for schools and the bonuses awarded to their administrators are based on test scores, graduation rates, and number of disciplinary actions. Suspensions are bad for metrics, not only because they drive up the number of disciplinary actions, but because students of color tend to accrue them in disproportionate numbers.

Every administrator wants to reduce disciplinary metrics and is aware that reducing those numbers among minority students in particular is desirable. The advocates for Restorative Justice champion its ability to do both while stressing its origins in an “Indigenous paradigm.” Equity and inclusion are prioritized, and discipline is made a dirty word. Adherence to woke doctrine becomes the central purpose of “conflict revolution,” and punishment is treated like a backward and outdated notion.

When a student misbehaves and disrupts class, especially if that disruption comes as the result of conflict with another student, he is not punished but instead placed in a therapeutic session. The student talks through his feelings with the child or teacher that he was in conflict with. In theory, the student is made to confront his negative actions, understand the consequences of those actions for those around him, and ask forgiveness from the affected parties. This allows the student to return to class having learned the error of his ways without traditional punishment. In practice, this very rarely happens, and the student immediately resumes disruptive behavior upon returning to the classroom.

Restorative Justice, like most progressive ideology, fails due to a flawed understanding of human nature. We all make mistakes, and understanding the impact that our actions have on others can be an important step, but it is not sufficient. In our fallen and tragic state, humans willingly act to harm others, even when they understand the negative outcomes those actions produce. For some, the simple realization that they are causing others pain will be sufficient, but let us be honest: Often, the causing of pain was the entire point.

Children are still forming their social and moral understanding of the world and do not have rational control over their more destructive impulses. Many students are not taught the moral virtues that would allow them to place someone else’s well-being above their own immediate gratification through vengeance or amusement. In these cases, punishment, not emotional understanding, drives behavioral modification.

A student may not immediately care if he disrupts learning or hurts another student, but he will care about being isolated from his friends and losing his privileges. More importantly, removing a disruptive student allows the other children in the class to learn and not be punished with a more chaotic and unsafe learning environment. None of this is any kind of deep insight. Parents and teachers have known this for thousands of years, but these simple truths are ignored because they produce outcomes that are undesirable to the bureaucrats who operate the American educational system.

Many states like Florida have realized the danger of woke doctrine and taken action to ban the teaching of critical race theory and gender ideology. But Restorative Justice has flown under the radar and allowed woke ideology to become the foundation of disciplinary action for school districts in Florida and other conservative states across the country.

That a failed model of prison discipline made its way into American schools in the first place should say it all, but the incentives that drove its adoption are rather nefarious. Administrators know that disciplinary actions need to go down if they are to receive raises and promotions. Simply put, Restorative Justice allows school administrators to hide the problem, pretending that a brief therapeutic session has resolved a much deeper issue, and manipulate statistics in their favor. Bullied children are forced to pretend that their aggressor has made amends so the offending student can be placed immediately back into class without any consequences. Principals are also aware that the disproportionate suspension of students of color will be seen as racial bias by the school administration, not a failure of the individual students, and value the ability of Restorative Justice to reduce that metric as well.

Parents and conservative education advocates have led a grassroots movement to remove the teaching of woke ideology from the classroom, but they did not understand how deep the problem has spread. Wokeness is so ingrained in public education that it has shaped even the most basic disciplinary actions in conservative school districts.

Parents and legislators have made impressive progress in the fight against critical race theory and gender ideology, but they must now turn their attention to the dangerous practice of Restorative Justice as well. Students deserve a safe classroom where they are allowed to learn, and Restorative Justice seeks to rob them of that environment in the name of woke politics and corrupt school administration.

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