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Group urges New London school board to revise discipline policies

New London — A group of parents, students, educators and community members has presented the Board of Education with a report on ways the school district could implement a new form of discipline that would move away from punishment and toward restoration.

The approach would be based on a theory called restorative justice and would use a series of educational interventions — "restorative practices" — to encourage students to reflect on their actions and the consequences.

The goal is to resolve conflict through reconciliation with those affected.

The practices could include talking circles in which the participants take turns speaking in an effort to resolve a specific conflict, peer mediation or youth courts, and community conferencing. A similar system was implemented at Lyme-Old Lyme High School last year.

“One of the things I want to push back on is the assumption that restorative justice is a way of giving students a free pass,” Maegan Parrot of New London Parent Advocates said during the presentation of the report on Monday night. “It’s not that. It's actually a way of including them within amending what harm has been created.”

The report was put together by the School Discipline Working Group, a board-sanctioned group created last year after New London Parent Advocates presented a report showing that black and Hispanic students are disciplined at a disproportionate rate in the New London school system.

“They have done studies and found that restorative justice ... is by far one of the most positive methods to end this,” said Rich Baez, president of the New London teachers union and a fifth-grade teacher.

Baez cited a set of guidelines issued last year urging school districts to review discipline policies with the goal of reducing suspensions, expulsions and in-school arrests.

The guidelines were endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice, and featured restorative practices as a promising alternative to “zero tolerance” policies.

Both federal departments expressed concern over "practices that can push students out of school and into the justice system" creating a "school-to-prison pipeline."

The School Discipline Working Group comprises parents, students, teachers, administrators, board members, faculty from Connecticut College and representatives from community organizations.

The group recommends that the district gradually introduce restorative practices, beginning with “level 1” infractions like disrespectful behavior and tardiness, and then expand the policy to address all infractions after at least one year of a pilot program.

The group also suggests that the Board of Education make a commitment to restorative justice in the three-year strategic operating plan the board is expected to complete next February.

Superintendent Manuel J. Rivera said he has already talked with his staff about initiating a pilot program to use talking circles in at least one school next year.

The board took no official action Monday, but President Margaret Mary Curtin said the report and its recommendations will be considered further by the board’s soon-to-be-established Policy Committee.

“I was getting excited every page I was reading,” Curtin said of the group’s report. “It sounds very good, and if we could implement something like this in the future here in the city, in our school system, we’re going to be a better district for it and our kids are going to be better kids for it, too.”

c.young@theday.com

Twitter: @ColinAYoung

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