Bill to address disparities in NJ school discipline stats advances in Legislature

TRENTON, NJ — Working toward addressing the striking disparities found in New Jersey school discipline statistics, legislation that would create a statewide program aiming to reduce racial disparities in school discipline; improve the socio-emotional and behavioral responses of students through intervention; and decrease recidivism rates among students who violate school district code of conduct advanced in the Assembly on Nov. 25.

The bill, A-3519, was approved by the full body, 59-13-2, during an afternoon voting session. It is sponsored by Assembly Democrats Daniel Benson, Angela McKnight and Mila Jasey.

“As school districts seek to adopt restorative justice practices, it is crucial for the state Department of Education to play a role, through this pilot, to develop best practices and provide guidance,” said Benson, who represents parts of Mercer and Middlesex counties. “Ultimately, our goal is to reduce truancy and violence in schools by ensuring groups that often are disproportionately affected by school discipline, such as racial and religious minorities, victims of school bullying and violence, as well as those living with mental illness, are seen and heard. Implementing restorative justice practices can ensure not only that discipline is more effective, but that the needs of the school community and those affected by the student’s actions are considered in any post-discipline remedy.”

The bill directs the commissioner of education to establish a three-year Restorative Justice in Education Pilot Program to implement restorative justice practices in the public schools. “Restorative justice” is defined as a system of dispute resolution tools that allows all parties of a dispute to be involved in defining the harm and devising remedies while giving the necessary attention to community safety, victims’ needs and the need for offender accountability. 

“How a child’s behavior is addressed at home and in our schools can either nurture or change the course of their future,” said McKnight, who represents parts of Hudson County. “We raise a child as we want them to go, with the understanding that a mistake does not have to be repeated and it doesn’t have to chart their path in life. Restorative justice programs may be just what we need to change the startling school discipline statistics in New Jersey and create safe, positive school environments for our children and staff.”

“The Senate and Assembly Education Committees held hearings on school security during this session. The positive impact of restorative justice programs was brought to our attention,” said Jasey, who represents parts of Essex and Morris counties, and who chairs the Assembly Higher Education Committee and sits on the Assembly Education Committee. “It is clear that educators need alternative methods to address difficult behavior in our classrooms.”

The principal of a school selected to participate in the pilot program would be required to limit the number and duration of student expulsions and suspensions to the greatest extent practicable. The principal must demonstrate a commitment to exhausting other forms of non-exclusionary discipline prior to using out-of-school suspensions or expulsions. The bill further requires that a school district selected to participate must provide ongoing professional development to teachers and other staff on: the adverse consequences of the exclusion of students from school and their involvement in the juvenile justice system; effective classroom management strategies; culturally responsive discipline; and developmentally appropriate disciplinary methods that promote a positive and healthy school climate.

The program would be established within six months of the bill’s enactment. Selected by the commissioner from applications received by willing school districts, five districts in each of the southern, central and northern regions of the state would participate in the program. The commissioner would provide any necessary guidance, support and training to participating schools.

The bill will now go to the Senate for final legislative review.

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