Seniors Ke’yanna Lamar and Ebonee Williams, who have leadership roles in Frank H. Peterson Academies of Technology’s student court, have seen up close how restorative justice can redirect the lives of troubled teens at their Jacksonville high school.
The program calls for students who commit code-of-conduct violations to go through mediation with accountability boards of fellow students or staff. The goal is to address the cause of a student’s behavior problem through in-school and community programs, rather than taking a zero-tolerance approach with out-of-school suspensions or worse, they told an interfaith assembly Monday night.
“I am really proud of the program. It allows us to deal with issues in our school,” Ke’yanna said.
Mentoring, counseling or help with family or academic issues, combined with some method of making amends, are a more productive deterrent to youth crime than punishment, the student leaders said.
“There is something deeper going on,” Ebonee said. “We need to find the real reason, find out what is really going on.”
Restorative justice is one of the key recommendations made over the last few years by the interfaith group, the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment, or ICARE. At the Monday night assembly, members of the nonprofit’s 38 congregations received progress reports on that and other recommendations made to the school district, city government and other agencies.
Many of them have been or soon will be implemented: restorative justice and direct instruction in some Duval schools, a day resource center for the homeless, a task force and study to spur economic development in Northwest Jacksonville through employee-owned businesses and a model to decrease mental health-care waiting lists.
“People power is present and growing,” said co-president Kent Dorsey, pastor of Riverside Avenue Christian Church. “We have taken another big step toward a fair and just Jacksonville.”
But ICARE members were encouraged to keep up the pressure to ensure continued funding and progress.
“The people of Jacksonville need to know they will be heard,” said Eugene Diamond, pastor of Abyssinia Baptist Church. “We will not be discouraged if the journey is long.”
Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has implemented restorative justice in 87 Duval schools. The program is part of a “culture change” to use code-of-conduct violations as opportunities for teaching, rather than punishment, he said.
As a result, out-of-school suspensions have dropped from 20,000 to 8,000 in one year, he said.
There also is a community component of restorative justice — civil citations issued by law enforcement for minor, non-violent offenses by youth, rather than arrests. Neighborhood accountability boards handle the mediation process between offenders and victims and mete out community service and restitution plans.
The boards have been set up in three areas — the Northside, Westside and Beaches — and have given 150 youth ”second chances,” said ICARE member Geneva Pittman.
Each civil citation costs about $400 to process, compared to $5,000 to prosecute arrests, she said.
“This is fiscally responsible not just socially responsible,” she said.