Conflict Intervention as Crime Prevention

Report Author

Justin R. Corbett

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Table of Contents

Institutional Impact – Schools

Evidence-Based Impact and Importance

Schools can be both direct beneficiaries of and strategic contributors to reductions in youth- involved criminogenic risk and criminal activity. Those that incorporate restorative practices and peer mediation274 programming – ideally as whole-school initiatives with on-site support275 – reduce students’ criminogenic risk profiles, minimize students’ in- and out-of- school troublesome behaviors,276 minimize truancy277 and dropouts,278 alleviate bullying,279 lower administrative reliance upon punitive disciplinary actions,280 enhance school safety,281 improve academic performance282 and graduation rates,283 and serve to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.284

Zero-Tolerance Alternative. Overly punitive approaches to school discipline, such as zero-tolerance policies and an extensive reliance upon suspensions, have been roundly discouraged.285 The successful implementation of restorative practices as an alternative to these approaches is well supported,286 thoroughly researched,287 and highly effective,288 particularly for at-risk students.289 These interventions are associated with better outcomes on key measures of student performance and school climate,290 reduce premature exits from formal education,291 and can contribute significant lifelong benefits.292

School-to-Prison Pipeline. Youth subjected to traditional school discipline techniques are up to 23% more likely to become involved with the juvenile justice system.293 Indeed, few youth go on to become chronic offenders without first having been suspended from school.294 Embedding restorative practices in schools works to dismantle these harmful effects by minimizing the frequency and intensity of school conflicts, and by reducing reliance upon exclusionary discipline practices.

NYC Performance and Potential

Service providers actively collaborate with numerous local schools by implementing combinations of three proven approaches to receiving the aforementioned benefits: (1) conflict skills training, and the integration of (2) peer mediation or (3) restorative practices into the existing disciplinary and pedagogical procedures. The feedback and results to date have been resoundingly positive.

The integration of restorative programming in NYC schools is exceedingly limited and irreflective of their actual need. As such, significant additional support for school-based restorative programming should be a central priority for future long-term crime prevention investments.

In fact, if supported to grow, embedding conflict skills training, mediation, and restorative programming has the potential to annually prevent up to 98,200 instructional days from being lost to out-of-school suspensions in NYC – the equivalent of bringing an entire school worth of students back online each year.295

“Amid the growing chorus to abandon traditional discipline, Peacemaking offers a genuine, flexible, practical alternative.”

- John Foley Murphy, GSS Program Facilitator South Brooklyn Community High School (RHPP)

“We’ve reduced suspensions by 60%, increased parent engagement by 20%, and now see students resolving their own conflicts thanks, in part, to the Peace Institute’s work.”

- Melvin Thomas, Dean of Students Urban Assembly School of Business for Young Women (NYPI)

Figure 28. Restoring Students in Schools296

Restorative practices help keep youth in school, providing substantial student and systemic benefits.


274. Currently, there are an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 peer mediation programs in U.S. schools. This estimate is rooted in a continuation of the reported decadal doubling of peer mediation programs that has occurred since the mid-1980s (Baker, K., 1985; Freeman, S.M., 2007; LeBoeuf, D., Delany-Shabazz, R.V., 1997).

275. Comprehensive, whole-school initiatives that seek to alter the underlying school climate, rather than appending easily overlooked disciplinary alternatives, present the greatest potential for lasting, substantive changes to a school and its students (Fowler, D.F., 2007).

276. Specifically, both student mediators and their parents report that participating in a school-based peer mediation program led to observable differences in conflict engagement practices with siblings in the home setting (Gentry, D.B., Benenson, W.A., 1992).

277. For example, a statewide analysis of Ohio’s Truancy Prevention Through Mediation Program – a program, which at one time was operating in 515 schools and 135 school districts (Krauss, E., 2009) – reported a 46% reduction in absenteeism and a 39% reduction in tardiness amongst student participants (Ohio Commission on Dispute Resolution & Conflict Management, 2005).

278. Schools within the Oakland Unified School District that implemented either a peer restorative justice or a whole-school restorative justice program reported a statistically significant 56.2% reduction in their student dropout rate compared to a 17% reduction at non-RJ schools (Jain, S., et al., 2014).

279. Reports of bullying frequency alone, as outlined by Decker (2009), presents a compelling argument for mobilizing peer mediation as a mechanism of mitigation and prevention, given its probable status as the most distributed form of constructive school-based conflict programming in the U.S. In addition to mediation, numerous alternative approaches to school-involved bullying have been proposed and piloted around the country, including some favored by community mediation (e.g. bystander training-oriented interventions; Polanin, J.R., Espelage, D.L., Pigott, T.D., 2012) and restorative justice (Morrison, B., 2002; Christensen, L.M., 2009) programs. Some of these more comprehensive approaches can help enhance bullying victims’ quality of life and life satisfaction by empowering peer and teacher bystanders to constructively intervene and mitigate bullying’s harmful effects (Flaspohler, P.D., et al., 2009).

280. As part of its emphasis on progressive discipline, the NYC DOE’s 32-page Citywide Behavioral Expectations (Discipline Code) makes 38 references to restorative approaches/practices (New York City Department of Education, 2015). Such significant endorsement of restorative practices is a testament to their superiority over traditional punitive approaches to school discipline.

281. González (2012) has penned an impressively authoritative review of the many consequences of school-based restorative justice programs, including its impact on school safety, for which she notes: “Studies focused on school safety find that when schools approach discipline through responsive, reintegrative, and restorative mechanisms, they are more effective at maintaining safe communities. By developing more balanced responses to student behavior, such as restorative justice, schools can promote stronger academic environments, which in turn improve school safety. Policies that focus on repairing the harm, establishing accountability, and developing a strong school community have been found to prevent future actions.”

282. A meta-analysis of 38 studies of school-based peer mediation programs found that school-based peer mediation programs have a 94% success rate in achieving agreement, report an 87% participant satisfaction rate, produce a positive impact on school climate, reduce teachers’ and administrators’ perceptions of conflict in their respective schools, reduce the use of disciplinary actions, and increase student mediators’ academic performance and self-esteem (Burrell, N.A., Grimes, D., Allen, M., 2014).

283. As it relates to truancy, “students with the highest truancy rates have the lowest academic achievement rates” (Baker, M.L., Sigmon, J.N., Nugent, M.E., 2001). Overall, of all students who were suspended or expelled, 31% repeated their grade at least once and 10% dropped out (Fabelo, T., et al., 2011). In this way, interventions that help keep youth in school also help keep them on path to graduation.

284. Restorative interventions are increasingly acknowledged for their important contributions to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. They achieve this through their role as more constructive alternatives to traditional exclusionary and other punitive forms of school discipline, which have proven to be major contributors to the ‘school-to-prison’ construct. For their achievements, restorative practices have been singled out by numerous national and NYC-specific entities for their effectiveness in moderating discipline’s pipeline contributions. See, for example, reports from the American Bar Associations (Redfield, S.E., Nance, J.P., 2016), the American Psychological Association (Skiba, R., et al., 2006), and the New York City School-Justice Partnership Task Force (2013).

285. The use of zero-tolerance polices has been discouraged on the bases of their harm to academic achievement, civil rights, and student health; their contributions to higher rates of criminal activity; and smart educational policy. A growing coalition of reform advocates seeking to discourage harsh and exclusionary approaches to school discipline is comprised of experts on such topics as educational policy (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Education, 2014), student health (American Academy of Pediatrics, see: Council on School Health, 2013; and American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008), and criminal justice (New York City School-Justice Partnership Task Force, 2013; Redfield, S.E., Nance, J.P., 2016), to name only a few.

286. Advocacy for school-based restorative practices is found throughout a broad range of contexts and perspectives, including federal policy across politically divergent administrations and social movements of historic and ongoing importance.

287. See supra note 285.

288. One particularly impressive result from replacing zero-tolerance policies with school-wide restorative practices was documented in West Oakland, CA, where such a move reduced suspensions by 87% and eliminated the need for expulsions (Sumner, M.D., Silverman, C.J., Frampton, M.L., 2010). Additional studies have shown similar results, including a 45% to 63% reduction in behavioral referrals and suspensions in Minnesota schools (Minnesota Department of Education, 2003, 2011); a 68% reduction in police tickets and 40% reduction in out-of-school suspensions in Denver (Advancement Project, 2010); a 50% reduction in suspensions in West Philadelphia (Lewis, S. 2009); and a 38% reduction in suspensions in San Francisco Unified School District (U.S. Department of Education, 2015); to name only a few. For review of additional outcomes, see: Kidde, J. (2016).

289. One category of at-risk students are those receiving or in need of special education services. Here, the need for restorative interventions is particularly acute, as “nearly three-quarters of the students who qualified for special education services ... [have been] suspended or expelled at least once” (Fabelo, T., et al., 2011).

290. For example, Cohen (2013) found students subjected to exclusionary disciplinary measures were up to 7% less likely to progress to the next grade level, and generated up to 16% additional subsequent offenses than students receiving non-exclusionary interventions for the same offense type.

291. The criminogenic consequences of early exits from formal education are seemingly indifferent to the drop, pull, push trichotomy motivating such exits (Stearns, E., Glennie, E.J., 2006). Therefore, interventions that allow for a more complete exploration of the context surrounding students’ exit-signaling behaviors – whether it be academic performance, school bullying, family strife, financial strain, social skills deficits, etc. – can be more effective at retaining those students’ educational involvement than those that artificially constrain their focus to school-centered motivations.

292. Students who exit formal education early are associated with reductions in lifelong earnings (up to an average of $480,000 less in earnings and $60,000 less in taxes; Center for Labor Market Studies, 2009); lower overall qualities of health (National Institutes of Health, 2003); and a life expectancy that is six to nine years shorter than graduates (Wong, M.D., et al., 2002).

293. This 23% increase represents students’ overall risk of subsequent justice system involvement (Carmichael, D., Whitten, G., Voloudakis, M., 2005). More immediately, “a student who was suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation was nearly three times as likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year” (Fabelo, T., et al., 2011).

294. For a review of how exclusionary school discipline has a racially disproportionate effect on subsequent criminal activity, see: Shollenberger, T.L. (2013). Importantly, Shollenberger notes that for 42% of Hispanic boys, 37% of black boys, and 19% of white boys, self-reported criminal activity began only after their suspensions occurred, suggesting school discipline was a causal factor for their subsequent criminal careers.

295. Based on an average-sized NYC public school (624 students; New York City Department of Education, 2016a) with an average attendance rate (91.55%; New York City Department of Education, 2016b), this estimate calculates the full-time school equivalent of instructional days (178 days) saved from from suspension by relevant programming (presuming a 25% reduction in suspensions; Bickmore, K., 2002, which is notably more conservative than the experiences reported in supra note 288) using the estimated ratio (81% principal, 19% superintendent; Liu, J.C., 2013) and suspension length of principal (1-5 days; New York City Department of Education, 2015) and superintendent (average 25 days; Miller, J., et al, 2011) administered suspensions for 2015’s 44,636 reported suspensions (New York Civil Liberties Union, 2016b). These calculations project conflict skills training school-based mediation and restorative practices programming would prevent up to 98,200 lost instructional days.

296. By reducing reliance upon exclusionary discipline and addressing extra-/curricular stressors, school-based restorative practices help keep students in school, thereby improving their academic performance, on-time grade progression and graduation, family relations, and lifetime earning potential, as well as reducing their probabilities of criminal justice system contact or developing a criminal career. The schools themselves benefit from increased school climate and safety, among others. For specific references and projected system- wide calculations, see supra notes 278-280, 283-285, 290, 294, and 297.