Seattle’s Garfield High School has stood for nearly a century as a proud reminder of the city’s diversity and progressive social movements. Its impressive facades are host each year to the MLK Rally and Celebration, and its students have famously demonstrated recently, as well as in times past, for causes of social justice and educational reform. But when it comes to discipline practices, Garfield’s story is unfortunately much like many of the public schools in the state and the rest of the country.
“In Seattle Public Schools,” states Polly Davis, a professional educator and mediator at the King County Office for Alternative Dispute Resolution, “African American students are at 18.6 percent of the population and they were suspended at a rate of 12.9 percent. And this is contrasted with white students at 43.2 percent within the Seattle Public School District, and they are suspended at rates of 3.8 percent.”
The same overall trends exist throughout the United States, but Seattle’s numbers are well above the national average. At Garfield, it was discovered that an administer had been suspending African American students at an even more alarming rate, and in May 2012, the U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation into the Seattle Public School District’s practices. That investigation is ongoing, but the community around Garfield decided to start enacting change now.
In a typical white-walled classroom, well after the final bell has sent most of Garfield’s student population to after-school sports programs and other activities, students and adult volunteers in Garfield’s Restorative Justice Pilot Program begin another rigorous training session.
Every two weeks, they meet to practice tried-and-true restorative justice techniques that focus on communication, bringing all the parties in the equation together to repair harm and build skills and accountability with each other and the community. Students role-play as victims, offenders and mediators, practicing the proper lines of questioning and vocabulary necessary to mediate a conflict. They put themselves in the shoes of those who wave wronged or been wronged. The students talk, listen and decide together on the consequences that should be faced. Watching the technique unfold, it seems like a no-brainer that humans should have invented a long time ago. As it turns out, we have.
“The processes we’re talking about aren’t brand new,” explains Davis, who coordinates the pilot program. “These are age-old, traditional processes within indigenous communities throughout the United States and the world. And even your own family.”
Garfield’s students, faculty, administration and community decided last year to try the program, and since then it has been slowly gaining momentum and winning over doubters. But some teachers, like Junior and Senior-level English teacher Stephanie Taylor, do have concerns over the volunteer time that will be involved once the program actually starts school-wide.
“It’s a long day for all of us already,” says Taylor. “My only concern is that the meetings will prevent me from helping students after school and other important activities. I hope the meetings are more like 30 minutes, not 90.”
Still, Taylor and many other faculty realize this is the right thing to do, and that keeping students in school to deal directly with their conflicts far outweighs the personal hardship. “Everyone in the building needs to be trained,” contends Taylor.
And many outside the school have also taken note of the program, including King County Juvenile Court Services. The Court has referred two initial cases to the team at Garfield, which will be mediated later this year. Those in the judicial system, including Judge Wesley Saint-Clair, who has seen for himself how real and prevalent the school-to-prison pipeline is, hope the program and others like it can provide another option to at-risk youth that could be the difference between going to jail and staying in school.
Explains Garfield Junior Briana Green, a mediator in the Pilot Program, “Restorative justice builds those communication skills that you kind of need in life. Because we’re all going to get in conflicts and we’re all going to make mistakes and probably not handle situations the right way. But I think the most important thing is to learn how to recover so you’re not remembered by what you did so much as what you did to overcome it.”
A native of Calgary, Canada who cut his teeth in the documentary industry of Washington, D.C., Nils moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 after working on a National Park Service film about Mt. Rainier and falling in love with the area. He has been producing non-fiction content for thirteen years, from broadcast and independent documentaries to museum films and non-profit PSAs. One of his most recent films, 'Beyond the Visible’ which reveals the inner workings and transformational science of the Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico, was just awarded the 2014 Cine Golden Eagle Award for non-fiction storytelling. Nils lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids.More stories by Nils Cowan