"If we are to have peace in our communities, we need a justice that heals."
— Fania Davis, Co-founder and executive director,
Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth
You may have seen it: the photo of six laughing, college-bound white girls at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, in black shirts with gold block lettering that spelled out the n-word. Their shirts were part of a larger senior class activity in which 34 girls—all white—posed in similarly lettered shirts to make the collective statement, "Best*You've*Ever*Seen*Class*of*2016." At some point on picture day, the special six mustered all the ingenuity of a cactus, reorganized themselves Wheel-Of-Fortune style, and kaPOW! Facebook feeds across the globe were aflame with outrage and indignation.
My computer screen began to melt from the heat generated when numerous media outlets reported the girls were given five-day suspensions and that college scholarships were revoked. It's unclear whether this was true, but many well-intentioned people didn't feel justice had been served. A petition created at change.org—demanding not just immediate expulsion, but the firing of the school's principal as well—has 47,545 signatures as of this writing. This is highly problematic.
As blacks kids comprise only 6 percent of the Desert Vista student body (per greatschools.org), it's no shock there isn't a single black student in the Best*Class photo. This and the fact that these girls had zero compulsion to check themselves underscore the reality that the school environment can't be a safe one for black students—or any students of color for that matter.
It's all painful and ugly, and painfully ugly. But kicking the girls out of school? Revoking college opportunities? That is classic retributive justice, the dominant kind favored in our society that disproportionately affects black students from their earliest moments in school, often with devastating, life-long and multi-generational ramifications. A white-girl suspension has precisely none of the same impact as a black-girl suspension. I'm just setting that here for your contemplation.
Retributive justice is about punishment: To suspend or expel? That is the question we ask before wiping our hands and moving along. Retributive justice focuses on the person who caused the problem and how best to punish her. It leaves little room for education, dialogue, accountability, apology and repair. While bringing down the hammer may feel good in the moment, any possibility for deep and wide learning is impossible, and Zero Tolerance policies are a stinging example of this.
Restorative justice is the alternative. Unlike retributive justice, restorative justice looks at who was harmed, at the needs and responsibilities of all who are affected, and brings everyone together to heal. Though relatively new by comparison (30-ish years old, according to Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth), and requiring careful training, collaboration and unwavering commitment, restorative justice has proven to be highly effective in problem solving. It is the official form of discipline in the Oakland Unified School District, and a program right here in City Heights is overwhelmingly successful.
"The City Heights Restorative Community Conference Pilot Project," KPBS reported last fall, "takes qualified youth offenders and puts them in face-to-face meetings with their victims and community stakeholders. Together, the parties work out customized plans designed to repair the harm done to victims, families and the community, as well as the offenders themselves."
Restorative justice in this latter case is being used to address juvenile crime, but it can be used in one-on-one relationships, in families and of course in schools. So it is with this in mind that I cringe as I hear the witch-hunty clamor for the expulsion of the Desert Vista girls. There is a huge opportunity here for the principal, the school and the district in this Phoenix community to come together for meaningful dialogue and healing.
Rather than being kicked out of school, these girls should be in the hands of educators trained in restorative justice. They should have to sit down with black students and listen to them talk—without saying anything themselves—about how the offending photo affects them. They should be given assignments to help them learn about the history of the n-word, and about their own internalized white supremacy. They should be given reading material (here I go again, folks: Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?, The New Jim Crow, or White Like Me,...I could keep going), and then engage in facilitated discussion groups. They should write papers about what they've read. They should be made to do community service for the underprivileged, preferably working with organizations serving the black community. And of course, they should apologize and have genuine accountability for their actions.
This is how Desert Vista High School and the Tempe Union High School District could begin to heal their community, and also show the world that there is a better way. A five-day suspension does nothing to help these girls truly learn anything, and will eventually result in White Girl Tears.
Oh...wait. Thanks to Internet vigilantism, the focus has already shifted from the harm they caused, to whether they—the now-we've-gone-too-far-in-shaming-them white girls—are going to be OK. And trust me: Whether retributive or restorative justice wins the day, they are going to be just fine. If it were only so for their black counterparts who are the true victims of this fiasco.