During this year's legislative session, full repeal was staved off, but several changes to restorative justice were adopted - including reducing the minimum ages at which students can be suspended or expelled. (Photo: Getty Images)
Despite high profile pushback during the legislative session earlier this year, Nevada schools are required to have progressive discipline plans based on restorative justice. And administrators say the schools actively embracing the spirit of restorative justice are showing early signs of improved outcomes.
Restorative justice in education was largely borne out of a desire to address the ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline, which disproportionately impacts students of color.
Black students in Nevada are disproportionately disciplined in schools. They make up 12% of total enrollment but 28% of suspensions and 36% of expulsions, according to Nevada Department of Education data presented to the State Board of Education on Wednesday.
Students with disabilities, homeless students, and students whose family income qualifies them for free or reduced lunch (FRL) are also disproportionately disciplined. FRL students make up 81% of total enrollment but 93% of expulsions and 88% of suspensions. Students with individualized education plans (IEP) make up 13% of enrollment but 17% of expulsions and 19% of suspensions.
Male students are twice as likely to be expelled or suspended as female students.
Democrats in 2019 passed restorative justice legislation designed to start addressing these disproportionate outcomes.
Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo after he was elected in 2022 pledged to repeal the measures, arguing that restorative justice policies are keeping violent students in schools and creating unsafe environments. Several high profile incidents, such as the brutal attack of an Eldorado High School teacher by a 16-year-old student in April 2022, lent credence to the concept.
Democratic lawmakers argued that restorative justice in schools was never fully or properly implemented, pointing to the onset of the covid pandemic less than a year after their legislation was passed.
During this year’s session, they staved off a full repeal, but several changes were adopted — including reducing the minimum ages at which students can be suspended or expelled.
More than 200 schools across the state are voluntarily opting into what’s known as the Nevada Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) Project, a collaboration between the Nevada Department of Education (DOE) and the University of Nevada Reno (UNR). As its name suggests, the framework breaks support into multiple tiers, with “tier 1” focused on helping all students through school-wide training and policy changes, “tier 2” providing targeted interventions to at-risk students, and “tier 3” offering more specific interventions for specific students who’ve been identified as having the highest need.
That project is nearly a decade in the making, though it has ramped up only in recent years. It encompasses a holistic, empathetic approach to improving school climate and fully supporting students.
Ashley Greenwald, the project director for the UNR center that oversees the MTSS project, told the Board of Education that early signs are encouraging. A third-party evaluation of DOE bullying trend data at comparable schools found that schools participating in MTSS had decreases in the average number of confirmed bullying incidents, as well as decreases in the number suspensions and expulsions due to bullying, whereas non-participating schools saw minor increases in those areas.
Laronica Maurer from DOE’s Office of Safe and Respectful Learning Environment noted that Black students’ share of suspensions and expulsions decreased by 2 percentage points last year when compared to the year prior. Black students made up 38% of suspensions during the 2021-22 school year. The following year, 2022-23, they made up 36%.
While modest, that rate is expected to trend downward in upcoming years, added Maurer.
“It takes time to really turn around those trends,” said Christy McGill, DOE deputy superintendent of public instruction, adding that she knows it can be frustrating for people to accept that when they want more progress faster.
Board of Education President Felicia Ortiz, who has served on the board since 2016, said presentations on disproportionate discipline within schools used to bring her to tears “because I was so pissed off.”
She continued, “But I recognize it’s systemic and not an easy fix. I appreciate the work that’s happening. We still need to do more. But I’m not sure we’re equipped to make it happen as quickly as we’d like.”
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