Thoughtful article today in The Atlantic by Sascha Brodsky about conflicting views on the rise (or fall) of school violence and the role of restorative justice.

Brodsky takes an interesting tack here. She begins with a few anecdotes of violence in schools seemingly condoned by school administrators–enough to get the attention of any concerned citizen who might be afraid that violence is coming to a school near them. But she quickly reverses by adding that these incidents might not tell the whole story about violence in schools:

But a lack of hard data and conflicting views on safety measures make it difficult to assess whether school violence is in fact increasing—and whether those measures are actually effective. Some observers worry that the absence of concrete information and confusion over the amount of violence in schools are hindering efforts to reduce violence and bullying.

And she’s right. The data is, unfortunately, all over the place.

Despite the concerns expressed by parents like those in the lawsuit, many experts say that the incidence of school violence is dropping. New York City school officials contend that violence on campus is on the decline, a trend that experts say is mirrored across the country.

At the local level, statistics on school violence can vary depending on the source. Walden pointed to state statistics showing that the number of violent episodes in New York City schools rose 23 percent from the 2013-14 school year to the one that ended in June 2015. But the New York City school administration uses police data showing that crime in the city’s schools declined 29 percent from the 2011–12 school year to the 2014–15 year. Some observers have said that the state data does not make a distinction between minor disciplinary problems in schools and more serious acts of violence and bullying. Critics also emphasize that the state data isn’t verified.

This is a nightmare for researchers, to be sure, but what does it mean for school-based staff? Brodsky goes back and forth between commentary and data that show the escalation of school violence–and commentary and data that show the opposite.

The truth is, analyzing national, state, or local trends doesn’t necessarily help school-based administrators make important decisions. Even if a system is working perfectly somewhere else, it doesn’t mean that that system will work perfectly in your school setting (if it works at all). (I am again reminded of Richard Allington’s dictum on literacy programs: every program works somewhere, no program works everywhere).

That being said, restorative justice, which is undoubtably the number one trend in school discipline nationwide right now, seems to be holding serious promise for troubled schools:

Chicago Public Schools have, unsurprisingly, seen a drop in suspensions since implementing restorative-justice practices; such tactics are often explicitly adopted as an alternative form of disciplineOne report found that in the 2013–14 school year, 16 percent of high-school students received an out-of-school suspension, down from 23 percent in 2008–09. “There’s been enormous progress in reducing disciplinary problems in Chicago schools since we started practicing restorative justice,” said Nancy J. Michaels, the associate director of the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation in Chicago.

The danger with restorative justice is that the desire to scale up quickly within schools and districts has the potential to poison the well of implementation, so to speak. A program like restorative justice cannot simply be “grafted” upon a school or a community. Teachers need extensive training, students and community members need to understand the purpose and procedures involved.

Just as there are no miracle cures for teaching reading or helping students with autism, there are no silver bullets for “fixing” broken school discipline systems. I have a feeling that in places where restorative justice is succeeding, it is succeeding more because of dedicated professionals who are motivated to do whatever it takes to help kids with challenges rather than because of any particular aspect of the program itself.

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