There are myriad examples in the literature of how the social disorganization theory links street crimes with ecological themes in certain tough neighborhoods. The sociological aspect of the theory -- wretched socioeconomic conditions and mean, gang-dominated streets offer more of an accounting for crime or delinquency than the individuals who commit crimes -- has been tested and referenced as valid by numerous scholars and researchers. The theory seems to neatly apply in certain urban environments, which perhaps explains why neighbors in collaboration with law enforcement have implemented Neighborhood Watch and Community Oriented Policing programs to control crime. But is strengthening the social networks in a crime-infested neighborhood really the one true answer to bringing down the crime rate? Do these programs, which do have a positive effect, really reach down into the core of the social problem? While they may protect innocent residents in some instances and help police make arrests, the result is often superficially punitive. This paper explores avenues that could be more beneficial to tough neighborhoods, lawbreaking, and the rule violations in public schools in those neighborhoods -- including creative uses of restorative justice and family group conferences.
Restorative Justice, Family Group Conferences, and New Zealand
There are many towns and cities in America in which social workers, community leaders and public school officials embrace the idea of restorative justice through family group conferences (FGC) -- also known as family group decision making. It is one aspect of restorative justice, which seeks to bring closure to victims and visit thoughtful sanctions upon the offender on a level that eschews most bureaucratic pretensions. Restorative practices in fact are used all over the world, and in the U.S., it is being implemented in high schools as a way to "replace punishment with conversation" (PBS, 2014). But before critiquing and reviewing the ways in which restorative justice is having a healing role in conflict situations (that in many cases were brought on by social disorganization dynamics), it is worthy to look at how restorative justice and family group conferences actually were originated.
The fact that historically European colonialism has brought discrimination and hegemony into the cultures of native peoples is an historical fact, but it is instructive in terms of exploring how restorative justice began in New Zealand. A creative kind of hegemony was perpetrated on the Maori, the indigenous peoples in New Zealand, when Europeans arrived in the early 19th century. There is no doubt that the British Crown wanted to take control of New Zealand, so they basically tricked the Maori into signing "The Treaty of Waitangi," which the Maori chiefs believed would allow that "…their own authority would be left in place" (www.tcara.govt.nz). The Treaty left the Maori with the impression that they would remain the true owners of the land, but that simply wasn't the case.
But in fact, the Treaty gave an enormous amount of authority to the British colonialists and through the years British immigrants arrived in great numbers and the land once tilled and owned by the Maori was in effect annexed by the British. Over the years the Maori culture became more marginalized and was relegated to a kind of cultural inferiority; it was believed that the Maori had a "genetically inferior intelligence" and that many Maori children that broke the law did so because of their lack of intelligence (Harris, 2010). "Maori were constructed as a deficient race" and their living standards and ways of believing were "pathologized and deemed immoral, heathen, idle, unclean and disorderly," Harris explains in an essay in the book, Breaking the Mold of School Instruction and Organization: Innovative and Successful Practices for the Twenty-First Century.
The policy of discrimination and hegemony resulted in a kind of situation that could be defined through use of the social disorganization theory; young Maori boys, especially, were seen as "at risk" (because they lived in poor neighborhoods) and were caught up in a law enforcement juggernaut and thrown in jail for minor violations. That was the terrible social crisis that led progressive political leaders to write and put into law "The Children, Young Persons and their Families Act" (CYPFA) in 1989. It was the revolutionary key that unlocked the door to a new kind of justice for Maori people. It was a new and better way of handling lawbreaking by young people and it meant that arbitrary rulings from the European courts could no longer be coldly handed down when a child breaks the law.
The Spread of Restorative Justice round the World and in High Schools
A pivotal part of the CYPFA Act was the creation of the Family Group Conference, which offered a positive and culturally fair way to handle juvenile problems in New Zealand and which today is impacting the lives of people around the world. A peer-reviewed article in Contemporary Justice Review posits that no movement has "…captured the imagination of those interested in crime, society, and governance" the way that restorative justice has done" (Wheeldon, 2009, 91). This strategy not only helps victims and their offenders, it has an appeal to victim's rights groups, and it "…spans continents, peoples, traditions, religions, even political ideologies" (Wheeldon, 209).
Wheeldon is accurate when he points out that restorative justice embraces the issue of harms "…suffered by the victim…by an offender" and that restorative justice also puts the resolution of those harms into the hands of community members, rather than isolate the matter within the cold walls of prisons (93). He is also correct by asserting that when a criminal act by a young person is met with "repressive and restrictive social mechanisms" (jails, prisons, more police and "greater surveillance") it amounts to "trading one form of societal violence for another" (Wheeldon, 93).
As to the family group conferences, in New Zealand these conferences begin with a "formal gathering of kin," along with child welfare authorities and social workers, depending on the age of the offender (Vesneski, 2009). The family members first have a private conference where they "speak honestly" and exchange views on what should happen to the young person that is a member of their family but has found himself in trouble with authorities (Vesneski, 2). The family then joins with the victim (and his or her family representatives), the social workers and perhaps a representative from law enforcement, and this "street-level" bureaucracy then comes up with a solution that hopefully empowers both sides of the conflict, Vesneski explains.
Restorative Justice in American High Schools
At Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colorado, located in a neighborhood where many of the families are in the low income category (75% of the 2,000 students are eligible for free and reduced meals), school officials had to suspend students for 263 physical altercations in 2007-2008, according to a Public Broadcast Service (PBS) report. However, in 2009 the school reported just 31 fights among students, a 48% reduction in suspensions; and the principal, Matthew Willis, believes that since the school has been using the restorative justice strategy, there have been "significant declines in defiance, disobedience and use of profanity" (PBS).
The system used at Hinkley High School is not elaborate, nor does it involve punitive measures necessarily. It could in fact serve as a model for other high schools where student violence and inappropriate behaviors require administration officials to take drastic measures to try and get control of the student body.
What happens at Hinkley High School is straightforward: a student is involved in a minor infraction of the rules, or gets involved in an altercation with another student, and a "talking circle" is arranged with the students involved, their parents, and the dean of students (PBS). The dean of students at Hinkley is Bonnie Martinez, who says that when something untoward happens you try to "restore the relationship" whether it is two students fighting or a student disrespecting a teacher (PBS).
An example shown by PBS was when two Hinkley girls got into a fight and rather than being suspended, they were brought into a talking circle with their parents. The dean of students has a "talking stick" and when it is your turn, you get the stick and hold it while you explain your side of the story. After the session, students sign an agreement to treat each other with respect, and so rather than a "zero tolerance" policy (as was enacted after the Columbine massacre in 1999), a powerful tool is used in order to restore relationships (PBS).
The restorative justice strategy is being used by more schools, especially following President Obama's directive to school districts to eliminate policies of zero tolerance, which led to suspensions and had a more profound impact on minority students.
High school students in the state of Texas could certainly benefit from restorative justice programs; a report by PBS revealed that after students are truant a certain number of days, they are sent into the criminal justice system. A student named Diane Tran recently spent 24 hours in jail for…