Across the US, school districts are ending longstanding contracts with police. As I outlined in this past article, these schools acknowledge that student resources officers (SROs) threaten the safety of students of color, queer and trans students and students with disabilities, enforcing a school-to-prison pipeline that puts young people — particularly Black students — behind bars. While students, their families and organizers are reimagining school hallways without cops, some administrators are stuck on punitive solutions to conflict.

Are Schools Replacing Cops With More Cops?

In early June, the Minneapolis school board voted out cops. Now they’re quietly hiring security guards to take their place. Members of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers stumbled across the job posting for “public safety support specialists,” which listed job responsibilities like breaking up fights, providing security at school events and creating “a bridge between in-school intervention and law enforcement.” The initial job description specifically requested applicants with a background in law enforcement, but a statement on the MPS Facebook page says that this was an error. According to a recent article on The 74, six finalists for those positions have policing experience and at least one currently works as an officer. Eight have worked in the corrections system. It’s unclear whether some of these “public safety support specialists” will be armed.

Minneapolis teachers, students and families who fought to get police out of MPS are understandably upset — why remove cops and replace them with staff who “provide a bridge” to cops? Cancelling their police contract will save Minneapolis Public Schools $1.1 million. According to City Pages, nearly all of that funding will go towards these “public safety support specialists,” who will earn more money than most teachers. This is not the “COUNSELORS NOT COPS” that protestors demanded.

How Does Restorative Justice Address School Safety?

According to INCITE!, an anti-violence network led by feminists of color, “restorative justice” is a reconciliatory framework for addressing harm. Rather than remove a perpetrator from their community, restorative justice involves all parties (perpetrators, those harmed and community members) to determine an appropriate response to wrongdoing. This model, which comes from indigenous communities, uses mediation to hold perpetrators of harm accountable for their actions and addresses the root cause of the harm, restoring the health of the whole community. In schools, restorative justice acts as an alternative to suspension, expulsion, arrest and other punitive measures that put students at risk.

Alternatives, Inc. is a Chicago-based organization that offers restorative justice training for Chicago Public Schools. These trainings help schools address conflict using peace circles, and it works. In 2019, schools where Alternatives, Inc. coaches trained staff and students in restorative justice experienced a 31% drop in reports of misconduct, a 50% drop in out-of-school suspensions and 43.8% reduction in “severe incident reports.” Additionally, the communication and self-reflection skills that students develop through peace circles help them become healthier adults.

Restorative justice isn’t just a practice — it’s a framework that requires involvement from all stakeholders. Alternatives, Inc. strives for a “whole school” approach, training students, administrators and other staff members to shift a school’s entire culture, but some aspects of that culture present an impossible challenge.

Can Restorative Justice Exist In Schools With SROs?

In Chicago, restorative justice practices exist alongside police. Cops will continue to patrol CPS hallways once schools reopen despite protests and proposed budget cuts, unless Local School Councils vote them out. According to Ana Mercado, the Director of Restorative Justice at Alternatives, Inc., police presence is antithetical to the work that Alternatives, Inc. is trying to do.

“There’s tension because they’re opposite frameworks,” Mercado said. “It’s been heartbreaking for me to see situations where I could have made a difference, but an officer made the call to take [students] down to the station because he made the assessment that that’s what’s going to scare them straight.”

According to Mercado, police in CPS aren’t supposed to get involved in disciplining students, but that doesn’t stop SROs from taking on conflicts that could have been resolved with a peace circle. While staff members who have been trained in restorative justice aim to help students hold themselves accountable, SRO involvement puts students’ futures at risk. “Something that a disciplinarian would see as a discipline issue, a police officer could see as a law getting broken. A school yard fight becomes assault,” Mercado said. “I work with students in the aftermath of that and see the impact on them.”

Alternatives, Inc. does not train school police. Mercado says that reforming a broken system just doesn’t work. “Trying to retrain a police officer to do the opposite of all their training when they’re still working within a system that’s reinforcing all of those things, too… all those efforts at training police don’t address these fundamentals around policing, so they don’t stick,” Mercado said.

Can Security Guards Work Within A Restorative Justice Framework?

In addition to the 180 SROs assigned to Chicago schools, CPS employs about 1,400 security guards. While Alternatives, Inc. staff members don’t work with cops, they do work with unarmed guards as part of their “whole school” approach to restorative justice, but getting security guards to redefine “security” can be an uphill battle.

While they don’t serve the same role as police, security guards create some of the same problems, even when they don’t have a history in law enforcement. Of the 467 adults accused of misconduct in Chicago schools last year, 14% were security guards, who make up less than 5% of school district employees. Security guard misconduct, particularly against students of color, exists in schools across the country. Earlier this year, a Black second grader was slammed against the wall by a white security guard at a Seattle public school.

According to Mercado, as long as security guards are in schools, they have the potential to serve a positive role with access to the right resources. “One thing that makes a security guard potentially different from a cop is that a security guard didn’t just receive the amount of training that’s the exact opposite of a restorative approach that a cop does,” Mercado said. “You have more leeway to be able to refigure what that position in a school is doing.”

Of course, training security guards and other staff requires time and money. Without adequate funding, restorative justice programs cannot reach their full potential.

How Can Schools Stop Getting In The Way Of Restorative Justice?

The most direct way that schools can implement restorative justice is through adequate funding. According to Mercado, “Without the support for a more holistic approach, it runs the risk of becoming yet another district initiative that failed without support.”

CPS recently proposed slashing its police budget in half, potentially saving schools millions of dollars. What’s to be done with the leftover funds has yet to be announced. “If CPS spent as much money on restorative justice as they did on punitive measures, I’d be really excited to see what we could do with that,” Mercado said. “Sometimes people see halfway measures and think the framework doesn’t work, but really, we have to look at how we can implement this with fidelity.”

When Minneapolis Public Schools ended their contract with police, they could have used that funding for more nurses, more counselors and better restorative justice programs that improve student well-being and address the root causes of conflict. Instead, MPS is pouring almost all of this money into security guards, leaving punitive culture solidly in place. This lack of imagination harms students who could benefit from a restorative school culture.

“When you start building enough trust in this other framework that’s restorative versus punitive, you start to see young people actually taking accountability for their behavior in amazing ways,” Mercado said.

How Can We Advocate For Restorative Justice In Schools?

If your local schools don’t practice restorative justice, contact your school board and superintendent to demand that they remove SROs and fund holistic ways of addressing harm. If you live in a state that elects its school board members and superintendent, vote for candidates who advocate for restorative justice, and choose candidates who actually reflect the populations they serve. When you protest, email or make phone calls, make sure you’re well-informed. To learn more about restorative justice and its successes, visit the Transform Harm restorative justice resource hub.