Commentary: Tackling racial inequality starts with New York City’s DOE

New Yorkers just voted to redress racial inequality in our city. It should start with the schools.

Public School 179.

Public School 179. Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Just a few days before the pandemic hit, I dropped by a high school in Brooklyn, checking in with my team in their final year of implementing a restorative justice program. I often think back to that day, to Jennifer, who sat in one of our offices to talk about why she was having such a hard time keeping up with her grades. Between a two-hour commute and an evening job at a supermarket, she was falling asleep in class. But she wouldn’t tell her teachers what was going on, she said she’d rather they think she was stupid. 

Later that afternoon, I walked the halls with another student, who had been suspended for fighting, helping him come to terms with the harm he had caused. I ended the day in a packed office listening to an excited sophomore share his coming-out story, which he told with equal parts humor and grace. There were peals of laughter and obvious pride, as he described all of the obstacles he had overcome to be able to share his story.  

I left campus that day with a quiet pride for what our team had accomplished and gratitude for the invisible kindness they were breathing into the air on a constant basis. 

Three years earlier, my team had launched a project across five high schools in Brooklyn to see if restorative justice could improve the climate and culture at some of New York’s lowest-performing and highest-suspending schools. We wanted to see if restorative justice could reduce the use of suspensions and expulsions. The hope was that by reducing suspensions, we could also reduce what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline, especially for Black students, who are five times more likely to receive exclusionary discipline in New York City and who are then more likely to get caught up by the criminal justice system after a suspension.  

Between Sept. 1, 2017, and March 12, 2020, the day the mayor declared a state of emergency in New York City, I had seen a palpable transformation in these schools. In the first year of our project, our team broke up scores of fights and defused brewing conflict around the schools. By our last year, the number of incidents had dropped precipitously. In one of our schools, it wasn’t until February of that academic year that a team member witnessed a fight. In fact, instead of picking a fight, our students would march up to our staff and bombastically declare, “I’m going to fight unless I talk to you.” And then they would talk about it.  

The theory of change was simple: Safety comes from strong relationships. To create more safety in the school, our team had to create meaningful relationships with the students most on the margins. They used a circle practice, rooted in indigenous traditions, to create trust, and they would build relationships with any student who walked through their door. They helped process harm if a student had caused it, but also helped each child reveal what was going on in their lives, whether at home or at school. “Whatever’s going on,” – and sometimes it’s just regular teenage drama – “have a snack,” they’d say. “Let's listen to music, let’s talk about it.” And beyond transforming school discipline, they also focused on improving school culture by creating after-school clubs, student-led podcasts and a myriad of activities like cyphers and carnivals that simply celebrated who the students were.   

Although there were teachers doing this type of work long before we came, our team’s presence represented a much more streamlined approach to keeping students close, even (and especially) when they misbehaved. The schools had not been set up for that. Previously, students who caused problems were often isolated, suspended and eventually pushed out.

I have no doubt that well-resourced restorative approaches in New York City high schools would make our students safer. They would be more emotionally literate, have stronger relationships, know how to identify conflict and find their own solutions. They would stay in school, improve their academic outcomes and avoid capture by our criminal legal apparatus, which seems to be lying in wait the minute they step out of line. 

But my lingering feeling is that there is an underlying bias in working to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by trying to change the students’ reactions to oppressive conditions, without also doing the deeper work of changing the conditions themselves. We keep asking young people to lead where the adults have capitulated, on issues like gun control and climate change, and even in creating safe schools. It’s somehow the responsibility of the students to manage their emotions, to face massive stresses with a dearth of resources and to play the hand we have dealt them. But there’s no plan to systematically reshuffle the deck.  

Most of the schools we worked in didn’t even have a functioning PTA. First thing in the morning, our students lined up outside to go through metal detectors. Safety agents flooded the entrance hallway. Then their phones were confiscated. Bathrooms were locked – you couldn’t go to the bathroom during the first 10 minutes or last 10 minutes of the period. And there was little to no access to clean drinking water.  

This is harm. Our city is doing harm to these students. At times, it felt like there were nails deliberately coming out of the high school walls, and yet every time a student got hurt, our team was expected to administer Band-Aid after Band-Aid, instead of working with the powers that be to just take the metaphorical nails off the wall. 

In good news, New Yorkers just voted overwhelmingly to approve critical ballot measures aimed at redressing structural injustice and creating a new office of racial equity. But we don’t need a commission to create reports that tell us what we already know. We know that New York City has one of the most segregated school systems in the country. It should surprise no one that the schools I described with high-needs and elevated suspension rates are 85% Black. We know that by third grade, New York City students of color are already behind their white classmates and lose more ground over the course of their education. Black students attend schools with a poverty rate 22 percentage points higher than those of white students. These high-need schools receive slightly more funding, but not remotely enough to make up for the proportion of children who require additional supportive services. 

What we need is action. These schools need counselors, librarians, and credible mentors from their communities. They need stipends so students have time to do their homework. They need after-school programs, well-funded sports teams, carnivals and homecoming– all of the positive programs that make school a place you want to be. That’s what I learned from three years of implementing restorative justice in majority-Black schools: Yes, we need healing, empathy and connection, but we can’t focus on that in the absence of structural repair.   

At its best, restorative justice is about paying attention to each other and making things right. New York City took an important step in voting to support the promise of racial justice. If we could use that mandate to repair our schools, we can begin the hard work of transforming our city.

Erika Sasson is an attorney and consultant who designs, implements, and facilitates restorative justice practices. She has worked in community-based settings and large systems, including courts and schools, and on issues ranging from intimate partner violence to homicide. She was previously the director of restorative practices at the Center for Court Innovation.