Last year when American Paradigm Schools took over Philadelphia’s infamous, failing John Paul Jones Middle School, they did something a lot of people would find inconceivable. Rather than beef up the already heavy security to ensure safety and restore order, American Paradigm stripped it away. During renovations, they removed both metal detectors and barred windows. The police predicted chaos. But, instead, new numbers seem to show that in a single year the number of serious incidents fell by 90 percent.
The school was known as “Jones Jail” for its reputation of violence and disorder, and because the building physically resembled a youth correctional facility. Situated in the Kensington section of the city, it drew students from the heart of a desperately poor hub of injection drug users and street-level prostitution where gun violence rates are off the charts.
School officials stated it wasn’t just the humanizing physical makeover of the facility that helped. They also credit the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), a noncoercive, nonviolent conflict resolution regimen originally used in prison settings, which was later adapted to violent schools. AVP, when tailored to school settings, emphasizes student empowerment, relationship building, and anger management over institutional control and surveillance.
There are no aggressive security guards in schools using the AVP model; instead they have engagement coaches, who provide support, encouragement, and a sense of safety. AVP recruited its engagement coaches from Troops to Teachers, a program that trains veterans as educators. Trained in nonviolent conflict resolution, the engagement coaches “help mediate disputes rather than dole out punishment,” Jeff Deeney reported in the Atlantic. Because students come to trust their engagement coaches, the school has been able to forestall potential conflicts: For example, “Coaches often get advance word,” Deeney wrote, “when something’s about to go down in the hallways.”
From Oakland, Fania Davis reported for YES! Magazine about Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), which has successfully influenced the local school district to replace “zero-tolerance” policies with restorative justice—and with impressive, positive results. Under the program, high school students with failing grades and multiple incarcerations who were not even expected to graduate now do not simply graduate but also achieve 3.0+ GPAs and earn honors as valedictorians.
As Davis, RJOY’s executive director, wrote, “Today hundreds of Oakland students are learning a new habit.” Instead of resorting to violence, they are being empowered to engage in restorative processes that promote “dialogue, accountability, a deeper sense of community, and healing.” The hallmark of restorative justice is “intentionally bringing together people with seemingly diametrically opposed viewpoints—particularly people who have harmed with people who have been harmed—in a carefully prepared face-to-face encounter where everyone listens and speaks with respect and from the heart no matter their differences.”
A University of California–Berkeley study found that RJOY’s middle school program reduced school suspension rates by 87 percent and referrals for violence by 77 percent. Racial disparity in discipline was eliminated, while graduation rates and test scores rose.
Jeff Deeney, “A Philadelphia School’s Big Bet on Nonviolence,” Atlantic, July 18, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/07/a-philadelphia-schools-big-bet-on-nonviolence/277893.
Fania Davis, “Discipline with Dignity: Oakland Classrooms Try Healing Instead of Punishment,” YES! Magazine, February 19, 2014, http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/education-uprising/where-dignity-is-part-of-the-school-day.
Student Researchers: Katie Barretta and Slava Eltchev (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)