Restorative justice practices and discipline inequities took center stage during last week’s final interviews panels for the Portland Public Schools superintendent job.
Candidates Eric Moore, from Minneapolis, and Ryan Scallon, from Philadelphia, both work under superintendents in public school systems in their own districts. During a visit to Portland last Wednesday and Thursday, they sat before panels of students, parents and staff, who asked questions ranging from student protests, the value of extracurriculars and addressing inequities in discipline in Portland’s school district, and implementation of restorative practices.
Restorative justice programs are programs designed to bring people together to find solutions to conflict beyond traditional punishment in criminal justice processes. They are an aspirational component of the Portland Promise, a comprehensive, equity-focused plan drafted and adopted in 2017, but haven’t been formally adopted throughout the school district in disciplinary measures.
Both candidates indicated that they would expand on restorative justice practices in ways. Scallon said having those practices at a school’s core is key to ensuring they feel safe, engaging and challenging for students. He cited work that he’d done to implement such practices in the Philadelphia school district, and helped ensure staff are trained in restorative justice strategies.
“We need to train staff in how to do each piece of restorative justice well so that it’s actually impactful and effective,” Scallon said.
Once those pieces are in place, Scallon said, it would be crucial to continue tracking discipline and suspension numbers to gauge if it’s made an impact or where additional support is needed.
The district gave a progress update on equity efforts at the Board of Education meeting on May 16. District officials also gave an update on discipline data, which still show racial disparities among suspension rates.
“There’s certainly work to go in terms of addressing the disproportionality but we are seeing reduced rates of the use of suspension as we try and work through our transformation to [being] an organization that prioritizes restorative approaches,” Interim Superintendent Aaron Townsend said at the meeting.
During the panel, Moore said that schools nationwide don’t do a good enough job of working with students that get multiple suspensions, and that they likely need additional support.
“For me, students are asking for something that we’re not providing when that discipline is happening. It’s really concerning to me that as you look at students who have been suspended multiple times, they tend to be predominantly students of color and [with] low income,” Moore said.
Halley Phillips, co-director of the Restorative Justice Institute of Maine, described restorative justice as a way of building, maintaining and repairing relationships in the interest of forming a more supportive and inclusive community.
It’s a mindset shift “away from punishment driven responses in harm and towards responses that are life-affirming, healing and accountability-seeking,” Phillips said. “Restorative Justice is the building, maintaining and repairing of relationships in order to form a more healthy, supportive, reflective and inclusive community.”
The superintendent search committee had an executive session and meeting scheduled for Tuesday, May 23, after the Phoenix went to print. The committee planned to come to a suggestion on the candidate they choose at the meeting before bringing it before the school board. The board is hoping to make its vote at the meeting on June 6, according to Board Chair Sarah Lentz.
The official start date for the new position is July 1.