Restorative Justice – No Need to Politicize It

Like millions of Americans, I watched the Democratic and Republican National Conventions as they ran on consecutive weeks in August. My personal antennae sprung to attention when an aggrieved father, Andrew Pollack, spoke during the RNC about his daughter, Meadow, a victim of the Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. Meadow Pollack, a senior, planned to attend college and spoke of becoming a lawyer.

He blamed “restorative justice” for the death of his daughter.

Mr. Pollack is a member of a small club to which no parent wants admittance. The depth of his anger and pain is unfathomable to the rest of us – myself included – who have not lost children to senseless and brutal acts such as the one that took Meadow’s and sixteen other lives, and left seventeen others wounded on Valentine’s Day 2018.

The gunman, Nikolas Cruz, a troubled and disturbed nineteen-year-old (at the time of the shooting) who legally purchased an assault style AR-15, faces life in prison or the death penalty. The COVID pandemic has delayed the start of his trial.

There have always been shootings at schools in the US, the vast majority being situations of personal vendetta or revenge toward a known individual. The 1966 University of Texas Tower shooting marks the beginning of an era of indiscriminate mass shootings at schools. Columbine, in 1999, horrified the nation and called attention to the sheer escalation of such shootings. A national reckoning ensued: Why do these tragedies continue to happen and how is it that teenagers are behind the trigger causing, essentially, child-on-child mass violence?

Many answers emerged: easy access to weapons and weak gun control laws; bullying; movie, TV, and video game violence; isolation; unstable home situations and rising rates of depression and mental health issues among young people.

The post-Columbine period coincided with the cresting of the mass incarceration wave in the US. With only 4 percent of the world’s population, the US today claims 25 percent of the world’s prison population and the highest incarceration rate of any country. Consider that in 1972 there were 200,000 prisoners in the US. Today that figure is 2.1 million. Browns and Blacks are proportionately much more likely to be imprisoned that whites – a process that starts in elementary and middle schools as juveniles are entered into the criminal justice system. What is described as the “school-to-prison pipeline” is recognized as a failed result of an overly punitive approach to misconduct and a marker of systemic racism.

Restorative justice, at its core, is the process of healing the harm caused by crime. South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” a restorative process, helped the country transition from decades of unjust apartheid to democracy. Restorative justice programs – whether in district attorney offices or prisons – help offenders accept accountability for their actions and bring healing to crime victims.

The implementation of restorative justice principles in school systems is an attempt to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline that traditional discipline approaches (“zero tolerance” suspensions and expulsions) have helped create. Restorative principles utilize preventative measures (mediation or training programs) designed to build skills and capacity in students.

In blaming restorative justice for his daughter’s death, Andrew Pollack alludes to a federal initiative started under the Obama administration, the “Supportive School Discipline Initiative.” A collaborative effort of the Justice and Education Departments, the initiative’s purpose was “to support good discipline practices to foster safe and productive learning environments in every classroom” (press release, US DOJ, July 21, 2011). Breaking up the school-to-prison pipeline was another purpose of the initiative.

Based upon this initiative, in 2014, the Obama administration mandated federal school discipline guidelines, aimed at reducing discriminatory discipline against Black and Hispanic students.

A year prior, in 2013, the Broward County (Florida) School Board adopted its own variation of school discipline reform, called PROMISE Program (Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Supports, and Education). Troubled and non-compliant Nikolas Cruz, a student in the Broward school system, languished three years in PROMISE Program – eventually exhausting his stay. He was indefinitely expelled in the year prior to the shooting.

In the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, President Trump seemed to entertain the idea of enhanced gun control laws – a ban on assault weapons, mandatory background checks, a “red flag” law to disarm gun owners who pose risks to themselves or others. Advocating for such changes were a majority of Douglas High School parents who had lost a child in the massacre, along with a vocal group of survivor students at the high school.

The Trump administration, however, backed away from most of the gun control policy changes. Andrew Pollack allied himself with Trump after a White House “listening session” at which, a week after the shooting, Pollack and other parents spoke to the president. Then, in December 2018, the administration issued a school safety report in wake of the Parkland shooting. The report rescinded Obama’s 2014 policy mandate on school discipline, giving school districts the autonomy to determine their own approach to discipline – whether “zero tolerance” policies, the newer policies, or some combination of the two.

The school safety report contained two recommendations that dealt with guns: arming “well-trained” school personnel; and, encouraging states to adopt “extreme-risk protection orders” in order to disarm potentially dangerous individuals, as would a “red flag” law. This last recommendation, possibly, could have kept Nikolas Cruz from purchasing an AR-15.

America has some 35,000 gun deaths a year – the largest number and highest per capita rate of any of the OECD nations (El Salvador has the highest rate, and Brazil the most deaths). Sixty percent of these deaths in the US are suicides. As for school shootings, the US has more incidents and deaths in this category than all other developed nations combined.

Mr. Pollack makes a valid point about the tragic deaths of his daughter and the other sixteen on that horrible day: The shooter should not have had legal access to a gun. Was that the fault of “restorative justice”?

The simpler truth is this: Places, like the US, with more guns will have more gun deaths – whether in cases of domestic violence, violence against police, homicides, suicides, or mass shootings. We have as many guns in this country as we do citizens, a rate that far exceeds that of any other nation.

Until we muster the political will to sign into law sensible gun violence prevention measures, the status quo will continue.

T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”

I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”

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